Priests bring comfort to menacing Kiev protests

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian priests are trained to comfort their flock — and these days, those worshippers are often on the barricades.

As a barricade of blazing tires belched thick black smoke in Kiev last week, a line of priests stood between hundreds of angry protesters and ominous riot police.

The priests have been one of the most visually arresting parts of the protests that have gripped this former Soviet republic for the last two months. Their vestments of black cassocks overlaid with colorful strips of cloth around their shoulders are a striking contrast to both the silver shields and black helmets of riot police and the often-scruffy clothes and rag-tag protective devices worn by protesters.

Every freezing morning, priests sing prayers to the demonstrators gathered on the Ukrainian capital's main square, a solemn and soothing interlude to hours of vehement speeches calling for revolution.

They have been an element of calm and aid, even providing shelter to protesters who had been beaten and were in fear of the police. When police violently dispersed an early protest gathering, many of the injured and the frightened took sanctuary in the St. Michaels Monastery, a hilltop complex in the heart of Kiev.

"Today we can see cases of people being chased by the government, which was chosen by the people but didn't justify itself as a government that cares about its people," said Father Igor of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. In many Ukrainian churches, priests are generally called only by a first name.

The priests also quietly provide an example of working together amid tensions. Although the four largest churches, including three factions of Orthodox, compete for influence in Ukraine, clergy from all of them have shown up at the protests.

"Now, especially in Ukraine, we can see that churches and other religious organizations may differ from each other at some point, but as people we are all people," said Father Ivan, also of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

"God says 'blessed are the peacemakers for they will have the kingdom of heaven.' That's why all the churches are against the confrontation and the bloodshed that has already taken place," added Father Igor.