URIZH, Ukraine — Maria Prokhmalskaya, a feisty 69-year-old, knew it was a sin to get into a fistfight, especially during Lent.
But she plunged into a quarrel, lost control and hit a fellow villager in Urizh named Anna Sopotnitskaya.
"I want your blood now. I want the entire world to look bleak for you," Prokhmalskaya, a Greek Catholic, shrieked at Sopotnitskaya, 45, a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox flock.
Enraged, the two women swung their fists at each other, spat and stamped their feet, each certain of her place in heaven and the other's destiny in hell. At the heart of their quarrel: the village church, a shabby wooden building nonetheless claimed by both flocks.
"Greek Catholicism is the real religion. You're nobody," Prokhmalskaya screamed. "You should forget the road to that church."
In western Ukraine, where the Greek Catholic Church was suppressed by Stalin in 1946 in favor of the Russian Orthodox Church, the wounds of history still throb red and raw.
Pope John Paul II plans to visit the region in late June, despite bitter opposition from the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church--the largest church in the country--which warns that a visit by the Roman Catholic pontiff will spark street protests and has vainly asked him to postpone it indefinitely.
But for Catholics here, John Paul's visit would be a celebration of the bravery of those martyred during Stalin's time.
After the quarrel at the church, Prokhmalskaya made an almost miraculous transformation from a screeching fanatic back into a sweet, beaming lady. She was almost contrite, sure that God had seen it all.
"I'll have to ask forgiveness for it. But sometimes I just can't contain my emotions and I lose control and I can't bear an unrighteous thing happening before my eyes," she said. The unrighteous thing, apparently, was Sopotnitskaya hovering too close to the church.
Early that sun-drenched day at the end of February, the deputy chief of the local administration, Orest Lutsin, came to Urizh with several police officers to enforce a court order that the Greek Catholic community give up the church to the village's Ukrainian Orthodox minority.
The Greek Catholic community has two other churches in the area, but the Orthodox faithful have only a vacant cottage at the top of a long steep track, impossible for elderly people to reach.
Besieged by several hundred furious Greek Catholic villagers, Lutsin gave up and left, his second failed attempt to transfer the church.
"We could use force to enforce the decision, but it's impossible to keep force here 24 hours a day. The only way to solve the problem is for the religious communities to reach peace and sign a truce," he said with a shrug.
On the losing side in Urizh, Mikhail Podlyashetsky, 50, is Ukrainian Orthodox--but his grandfather was a Greek Catholic Pole. "They say, 'Our grandfathers built that church.' But our grandfathers also built the church,' " he complained.
Western Ukraine was part of Poland until September 1939, when the Nazis invaded and handed eastern Poland to the Soviets.
Now five churches are struggling over property and believers in western Ukraine: Greek Catholic, which follows the Greek rite liturgy; Roman Catholic; Ukrainian Orthodox under Moscow Patriarch Alexi II; Ukrainian Orthodox under Kiev Patriarch Filaret; and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox.
In Urizh, Catholics see the Orthodox flock from the Moscow-affiliated church as Communist puppets.
"It's unacceptable for us to have a Moscow priest in our village," said Prokhmalskaya.
Yaroslav Voloshchuk, 52, chimed in, insisting that believers of what he called the Russian Orthodox Church should convert to an opposing Orthodox church or leave town.
"If they're not happy with our priests, they can go to the train station and go to Moscow. If the pope came here, he'd say, 'Let them follow their faith.' But they're Ukrainian. They should become Ukrainian Orthodox," he argued.
Since freedom of religion was reinstated in the early 1990s, the big loser in western Ukraine was the Moscow-affiliated church--the only one opposing the pope's visit. Without the monopoly it had since Stalin's day, it has shrunk from more than 1,000 parishes to just 62.
Most parishes returned to their earlier faith; as part of Poland, nearly all the believers had been Catholics. According to state statistics, 1,533 Greek Catholic parishes have been restored in western Ukraine.
In parishes such as Urizh, the conversion of priests and most of the flock back to Catholicism left the Orthodox minority churchless. Elsewhere, minority Catholic flocks had no church.
In a January letter to the pope protesting his planned visit, Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, from the Orthodox Church under Moscow, described the conversions in violent terms. The Greek Catholics had "seized" more than 1,000 churches and "smashed" three Ukrainian Orthodox dioceses.
The Moscow-based church also lost a lot of ground to the other two Orthodox churches, which now have 744 parishes between them.