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Ukraine Monastery Unites the Faithful as Country Splinters

Svyatogorsky Svyato-Uspensky Monastery near the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 19, 2014 on the eve of Easter. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP - Getty Images

SVYATOGORSK, Ukraine - Revolution in the West, insurrection in the East and Russian troops massing just across the border: There are plenty of reasons why Ukrainians might seek solace in God.

At this quiet monastery atop a hill, faith is bringing together regular parishioners despite their deep political divides.

"All Ukrainians have faith," said Alexandra Panova, a nurse visiting Svyatogorsk monastery with her nine-year-old son. "We all believe. I come here for peace of mind, both generally, and because of the current conflict."

Many indeed are trying to find peace in this ancient spiritual center about 20 miles from Slaviansk, an eastern stronghold of pro-Russian, armed men and checkpoints reinforced by truck tires and sandbags.

Image: Alexandra Panova
"Personally, I want to be united with Russia,” Alexandra Panova says. NBC News

Svyatogorsk, or Holy Hill, is surrounded by fir trees and overlooks the Donets River. Monks built the first monastery on the summit five centuries ago, and it has been a citadel of pilgrimage for millions of Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Church members.

But contemplation and prayer don’t erase the political differences between those who attend services at Svyatogorsk.

"Personally, I want to be united with Russia,” Panova said after a recent service.

Elena Naunova, a middle-aged Ukrainian who’s worked her whole life as a cook, believed Ukraine should remain united, and rejected the aggression of the pro-Russian insurgents.

She also blamed the media for drumming up trouble and disrupting the peace.

"The TV is constantly going on about terrorists and provocations. Jet fighter planes shooting and bombing. But look, you see, it is calm, thank God," she said. "Everything should be peaceful, they should demand their rights in a peaceful way, and the authorities should listen."

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While the monastery has been able to unite regular parishioners like Naunova and Panova in prayer despite their opposing beliefs, those at the top of the church seem unable to remain above the political fray.

The Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Patriarchs’ words could hardly have been more discordant during the traditional Easter messages last weekend. Kirill, the Russian, asked to pray for the people of Ukraine.

"For an end to violence, for people’s love for each other, so that they should not be divided," he said.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Filaret openly called Russia "the aggressor."

"Russia has taken Crimea from us the eastern regions of Ukraine," he said. "But we must remember that before the resurrection there was the crucifixion and suffering."

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The Russian church encompasses its Ukrainian affiliate, although they have their own hierarchies.

Meanwhile, inside the Church of St Nicholas next to the monastery, monks moved busily in unison in their black robes, lighting candles before a sumptuous altar, rolling out carpets, kissing icons and preparing incense.

Men like these have repeated the same rituals in this church thousands of times. But this time, dozens of worshippers all seemed to be praying with a purpose, bracing for a civil war that could be just around the corner.

Image: Kolya Kaupatenko
Kolya Kaupatenko fears the growing violence in his hometown of Slaviansk. NBC News

"Ukraine has been left without God," said Kolya Kaupatenko, a twenty-something Ukrainian who feared the growing violence in his hometown of Slaviansk. "It’s terrible. There’s banditry everywhere. What kind of life is this?"

Still, people here feel they will survive because Svyatogorsk always has through the centuries.

"The events in Kiev, the revolution, should never have happened the way it did," Panova said. "But I have Svyatogorsk, and I don’t think I’ll leave Ukraine, no matter what. Life goes on, as they say."