On a recent afternoon at a small house in the outskirts of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, five men and a priest gathered in front of a makeshift altar draped with a rainbow flag.
Amid the smell of incense, the service began with a prayer about St. Cornelius. Then the priest, Roman Zuyev, handed out the consecrated bread and wine before the congregation embraced, wishing each other peace.
This gathering, arranged in secret, was organized by the Center of St. Cornelius the Centurion, a small church community of around 30 people founded six months ago to provide gays with a place to worship.
While more European countries and U.S. states are legalizing gay marriage and child adoption by homosexual couples, homosexuality remains frowned on in conservative Ukraine. Unable to find a church that accepted their sexuality rather than treating it as a sin, these Christians found another way to satisfy their spiritual needs – by setting up their own group.
“Traditional churches would discriminate against us, but we believe in God, and there was no other way out but to create our own church,” said Zuyev, the priest of the church who earns his living as a taxi driver.
The worshippers meet for mass at the offices of friendly organizations or at people’s homes. At first, they gave addresses on their website, but now they meet in secret after they were attacked by a group of teenagers in masks yelling homophobic insults and tossing smoke bombs and firecrackers.
The mass is a mixed bag of different traditions, reflecting the diverse nature of the congregation. Zuyev grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Once I felt attracted to men, I fell into a deep inner conflict. I felt that God was rejecting me and left the church,” Zuyev recalled. He tried to overcome what he had been taught was a sin, but failed. Then he started to learn the Bible and discovered that “it contains nothing against gays,” he said. He joined a Mormon church and became a priest, but was defrocked when they found out he was gay.
But Zuyev, a balding man in his 30s with a calm, steady voice, decided to set up his own church after he was assaulted by a police officer because of his sexuality. He won a court case last October – the first in Ukraine involving homophobia. But he was struck by the abuse he received from bystanders attending the court hearings, and decided gays needed a place to worship and support each other.
Volodymyr Ponomarenko leads a church for homosexuals in Kyiv. This group is so afraid of publicity that they do not allow reporters to observe their gatherings. The group’s website – www.gaycredo.org.ua – contains clear influences of gay culture, adapted to church situations. One advert for SMS prayer services shows a handsome, half-naked man, declaring: “I’m praying for you.”
Ponomarenko said Catholic and Orthodox priests sometimes take services at the church, but refused to name them.
Evstratiy Zorya, a spokesman for the Orthodox Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, said he doubted this, quoting the Bible in saying that god is disgusted by homosexuals.
Zuyev, however, argues that the New Testament is not explicitly anti-gay, adding that other practices forbidden by the Bible – such as wearing clothes made from two different fibers – are also ignored in the modern world.
His congregation is receiving support from abroad. Later this year, one of the faithful – who would identify himself only as Anton – will be married to his male partner by a visiting priest from the Metropolitan Community Churches, a U.S. gay-friendly church.
There are several churches in the West that are friendly toward homosexuals, including the Episcopal Church in the U.S., Quakers in the United Kingdom and Lutheran churches in Sweden.
Still, the major world religions – Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – condemn homosexuals.
“Religions are designed to assert social development. And social development is to “be fruitful and multiply,” which requires being straight,” said Lyudmyla Pylypovych, a researcher in Kyiv who studies religions.
The only big religion that is accepting of gays is Buddhism. Dorje Jambo Choidje-lama, a Ukrainian Buddhist leader, said his religion is neutral towards gays, and that there are gay Buddhists in Ukraine.
“In a previous life, a person could have had another gender. That is why he or she might be gay. So no cultures connected to the Buddha’s teachings, like Japan and China, ever had troubles with the gay issue before Christianity arrived there,” he explained.