MOSCOW (RNS) A hospitalized Orthodox priest in western Ukraine has abandoned his 49-day hunger strike after a bedside visit by the local mayor, who reached a compromise with the cleric over a property dispute between two churches, the priest's son said Thursday (Dec. 6).

Father Stefan Derkach, 46, a priest in Chervonograd with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, broke his fast Wednesday after getting word that the Chervonograd city council voted to provide a half-acre plot for construction of a new church on the edge of the city of 90,000 near the Polish border.

Derkach, who lost over 31 pounds while on the hunger strike, will likely remain in the hospital for another week or two as he recovers, his son Ihor said.

"He is still in critical condition," said Ihor Derkach in a Thursday telephone interview, explaining how his father will only gradually be able to eat solid foods. "First he drank juice with water, then straight juice and then just a spoonful of kasha."

Derkach's hunger strike, along with lesser hunger strikes by 60 parishioners, was designed to get the city administration to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate the right to use St. Stefan's Church, a structure constructed in 1992 and now under the control of their archrivals, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate.

According to Ihor Derkach, Moscow Patriarchate parishioners were forcibly evicted by police in January 2000. Since then, worshippers have been holding services in a nearby four-room apartment or on the sidewalk in front of their old church.

On Dec. 3, Chervonograd Mayor Petro Olynik visited Stefan Derkach in his hospital room and said he would call an emergency session of the city council and ask council members to allot land for the construction of a new church. The half-acre plot is exactly the same size and located about 100 meters from another plot granted earlier to another parish of the Moscow Patriarchate, headed by Father Georgy Yakubvinsky.

"The mayor said he doesn't want Father Georgy to be able to say that Father Stefan went on a hunger strike and got a better piece of land," Ihor Derkach said.

Since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been the scene of numerous bitter property disputes as Christians seek to set up parishes independent of the Moscow Patriarchate, the dominant, state-sanctioned faith under the Communist regime.
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