MSHANA, Soviet Union — For 44 years, the Catholics of Mshana have had no place to pray.
Like all other Ukrainian Catholic Churches, the tin-domed church of Mshana was absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946, on the orders of the dictator Josef Stalin, as part of his drive to eliminate Ukrainian nationalism.
"Our church has never been Orthodox, and it never will be," Denko Koblitsky, a defiant Catholic farmer said recently, pointing with pride to the tiny, 200-year-old building.
In late February, the 1,000 Catholics of Mshana seized the church, becoming the latest in a wave of once-secret congregations of Catholic believers to occupy churches in the western Ukraine.
In Mshana, a farming village on the outskirts of Lvov, the Catholics drove out the Russian Orthodox priest, Father Igor Shvetz, and the church was sealed off by the police. Since then, the Catholic faithful have posted a 24-hour guard around the church to keep the Orthodox, who number about 200 in the village, from returning to claim the property.
"We are freezing, but we won't give it back," said an elderly woman in peasant shawl, padded coat and felt boots, as she knelt on the grass near the front door and made the sign of the cross. As in the past, despite sub-freezing temperatures, the congregation continues to worship in the woods next to the building.
Throughout the western Ukraine, Catholics are emerging after nearly 50 years underground, years spent praying and attending weddings in apartments, cemeteries and even wheat fields, to find themselves still in bitter conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church.
"The Orthodox won't give us back our churches," said Ivan Gel, a Catholic activist in Lvov. "They are being aggressive and offensive."
Archbishop Iriny, the head of the Orthodox Church in Lvov, acknowledged in an interview that "the situation is very tense between the two churches." He accused political organizations that are promoting Ukrainian nationalism of trying to co-opt the church issue and whip up hatred.
"They claim that we seize Orthodox churches, but they were built by our grandfathers," Luba Dovga said. "They say Catholics seize Orthodox churches, but they are our churches."
"We survived 50 years underground and they failed to break us," said Evgeny Kotsky, a 73-year-old Catholic monk who at the height of the oppression of Catholics was forced to work on a collective farm. "They took our vestments and burned our books. If that didn't stop us, nothing will."
The Ukrainian Catholics follow the Byzantine or Greek Catholic rite. There are few differences between the Ukrainian Catholic services and Russian Orthodox services; both use the Ukrainian and ancient Slav languages. The primary distinction is that the Catholic Church pays homage to the Pope, while the Orthodox Church follows its patriarch in Moscow.
The Catholics began coming out of their spiritual catacombs last year when it became clear that the authorities under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev would not retaliate. A public Mass was conducted outside a soccer stadium and 300,000 people attended.
On the eve of Gorbachev's historic visit to the Vatican last November, the Catholics of the Ukraine were told that they would be allowed to register as religious communities--the first step on the way to full legalization of the church. But so far they have not been registered.
Archbishop Volodimir Sternyuk, 84, who presides over his Catholic flock from a one-room apartment without a telephone, complained that it may take many more months to get legal recognition and even longer to win back some of the churches that were seized in 1946.
"Until we are registered and get back our property, we won't be satisfied," said Sternyuk, who spent five years in prison for his church activities. "We don't have a seminary, and without one the church will die soon."
Sternyuk said the Catholic Church has just 400 priests to serve 3 million to 4 million Catholics in the western Ukraine. In addition to the priests who went underground, the Catholics claim 250 Orthodox priests who have come over along with their congregations. The Orthodox maintain that the number of their priests who have embraced Catholicism is only about 70.
A joint delegation from the Vatican and Moscow is due in Lvov soon in an effort to resolve the bitterness over church property. But the religious disagreements have endured since 1596, when the Ukrainian Catholics united with Rome.
"It's a church-state problem," said Father Andriy Chirovsky, a Ukrainian Catholic priest from Chicago who is on extended leave in Lvov. "Asking a Ukrainian Catholic to pray at an Orthodox Church is like asking an Irish Roman Catholic to pray at an Anglican Church. The people equate the Orthodox Church with Stalin's rule."