A Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest who had been abducted by pro-Russian forces in Crimea reached safety yesterday after he arrived on the Ukrainian mainland.
Father Mykola Kvych, a chaplain to the Ukrainian navy based in Sevastopol, was hounded out his home on Saturday as he was giving an interview to a group of Finnish journalists.
Speaking of the incident to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU), Fr Kvych said: "At the door of the apartment where I live, there were several unknown individuals who continually over long periods of time rang a bell and were trying to break the door.
"When they were gone, I left the building with my parishioners. I took only the Eucharistic set and documents."
He later led a service at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary church, where he was kidnaped by armed men who were later revealed to be linked to the new pro-Russian Crimean self-defence forces.
He was taken to a local law enforcement building and interrogated for twelve hours over his possession of 10 bulletproof vests in his apartment, and whether or not he had been organising provocations to protest or cause civil unrest.
Fr Kvych said that these vests were part of his humanitarian ministry to Ukrainian soldiers who were being blockaded from their bases by Russian troops, and for journalists who were under increasing danger of attack while reporting in Crimea.
Although people in the self-proclaimed Crimean authorities want to prosecute over ownership of body armour without permission, legal experts question their ability to do so.
Speaking to the Kiev based Institute for Religious Freedom (IRF), Maksym Paliy, a doctor of law, police colonel and criminology expert based at the Donetsk Law Institute, said: "Bullet-proof vests and helmets in such a case cannot be subject to any administrative or criminal prosecution.
"Bullet-proof vests are not included in the special self-defense equipment that is limited by Article 195-1 of the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offences."
Bishop Borys Gudziak, Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy, was quoted on Independent Catholic News as saying, "Every abduction is a terrible event for everybody involved. It's a gross violation of human rights and God-given human dignity."
Danger from Russian military activity and aggression from pro-Russian militias across the peninsula led the Greek Catholic Church to order the evacuation of the wives and children of priests from Crimea last week.
But according to RISU reports, priests were called to follow Pope Francis's exhortation for "pastors to have the smell of their sheep", and so are staying in the region for as long as possible.
"Our priests and bishops have been very close to the people," said Bishop Borys.
"We've been inspired by the example of Our Lord [who] went a long distance from fellowship with the Father to incarnate Himself and be in our reality.
"Our pastors have been with the people, and they're today with the people enduring this occupation in the Crimea."
Sunday's referendum results reveal that 95.5 per cent of Crimeans support leaving Ukraine and becoming part of Russia.
Many anti-Russian groups boycotted the vote. The Associated Press spoke to some ethinc Ukrainians in Crimea outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga. "We're just not going to play these separatist games," said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from a small town outside the Crimean capital Simferopol.
Most Western governments have dismissed the referendum. The EU said in a statement that it "considers the holding of the referendum on the future status of the territory of Ukraine as contrary to the Ukrainian Constitution and international law.
"The referendum is illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognised.
"The solution to the crisis in Ukraine must be based on the territorial integrity, sovereignty andindependence of Ukraine, in the framework of the Ukrainian Constitution as well as the strict adherence to international standards.
"Only working together through diplomatic processes, including direct discussions between the Governments of Ukraine and Russia, can we find a solution to the crisis."
In the midst of aggressive pro-Russian, pro-Orthodox fervour, anti-Catholic sentiment is spreading widely.
One Catholic priest had his front door destroyed and "get out Vatican spies" spray painted on his home.
In response to this and other similar incidents, Bishop Borys called on "the authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church, who have in direct or indirect ways supported these moves for the occupation of Crimea to do everything in their power to stop the persecution of Catholic priests and Catholic faithful on this peninsula".
Greek Catholic priests have avoided giving services in their own churches, instead sharing services with Roman Catholics, to make police protection easier.
Non-Russian Orthodox leaders are also feeling pressure. Last week, Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate was quoted by the IRF as saying that he feared that the Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate in Crimea would be banned "after the so-called referendum and the declaration of Crimea as Russian territory".
According to RISU, Fr Kvych also escaped with Fr Bogdan Kostecki from the city of Yevpatoria on Crimea's western coast. They are reported to be on the Ukrainian mainland in a "safe place", but their exact location remains unknown.