A Ukrainian branch of the Orthodox church accused of ties with Russia was expelled from the premises of two places of worship on Wednesday amid rising public anger against the organization 14 months into Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
The evictions come amid spiraling tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) on one side and Ukraine's government and large parts of society on the other.
Ukraine's accusations against the church
Kyiv accuses the UOC of preserving ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has supported Moscow's invasion. The UOC says it broke all associations with the Russian Church in May 2022.
In the village of Zadubrivka in the western Chernivtsi region, furious local residents forced their way in and evicted the UOC from the local church after they said priests refused to admit a funeral procession for a fallen soldier into the church, public broadcaster Suspilne reported.
The local UOC branch said the church had been stormed by "bandits."
In Lviv, worshippers gathered in the city's main UOC church to vote to transfer the church to the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which is favored by Kyiv and counts the majority of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine as members.
Police had to separate quarreling supporters of the UOC and OCU inside the church.
The local branch of the UOC said on its website that the vote in the Lviv church was staged by “unknown people” who came in under the direction of a senior regional official. It denied that the parish had decided to switch.
A 2019 Ukrainian law allows individual churches to switch denominations if two-thirds of parishioners vote for the change.
Local governor Maksym Kozytskyi said the legal process for switching the Lviv church over to the OCU was ongoing, and that he supported the change.
Wednesday's events follow moves by local residents and authorities to change the denomination of churches in two other west Ukrainian regions over the past week.
According to a Ukrainian pollster, the UOC, which recognized the Russian Orthodox Church as its parent organization until last May, three months into Russia's full-scale invasion, has lost over three-quarters of its pre-invasion believers.
Ukraine's government has accused the UOC of retaining ties with Moscow despite the war, and has opened criminal cases against over 60 of its clergy on suspicion of crimes including treason and collaboration with Russia.
The UOC says it has broken all ties with Moscow and that it has not been shown evidence for the cases against its clergy.
Public broadcaster footage from Zadubrivka showed a UOC priest and several other men leaving the church to cries of "shame" and "Muscovite priests - get out" from the assembled crowd.
"Why didn't you let a fallen hero, the third from this village, into the house of God?!" a bearded man bellowed at an ashen-faced priest holding a wooden cross.
The footage showed that the soldier's funeral procession, led by clergy from the rival OCU, was then able to proceed into the church.
Tensions around the UOC have spiked over the past two weeks as authorities seek to evict the church from a historic Kyiv monastery. Kyiv has also put one of the UOC's most senior figures on trial for justifying Russia's invasion and inflaming religious tensions.