MCKEES ROCKS — The downing of a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine's war zone casts a somber tone over Western Pennsylvania's largest Ukrainian festival, says an organizer of the event that starts Wednesday.
"At the same time, life goes on. We want to share our culture, our heritage and our food," said the Rev. Timothy Tomson, pastor of St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks.
Organizers expect more than 10,000 people to attend the four-day festival, which will mark its 11th year. The event raises money for the church.
Tomson said memorial services will be held nightly for the 298 people who died in Thursday's crash of the Malaysia Airlines plane, along with hundreds killed in recent months during conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia separatists.
Many of his church's members remain in contact with relatives and friends in Ukraine, Tomson said. Most are a generation or more removed from the country, but he estimates about 30 families are immigrants.
None fled the country because of the latest conflict; most flocked here in the early 1990s after the fall of communism, he said.
"We are praying there will be peace," said parishioner Patricia Borden, 76, of McKees Rocks, whose father came to the United States from Ukraine as a teen and served as a priest at St. Mary's. "We just hope that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will allow (Ukraine) to become one nation again."
Tomson, who is vice president of the nonprofit Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania, said he hopes "the world has their eyes opened to Vladimir Putin. He wants to take Ukraine back and reconstitute the Soviet empire.
"Ukraine has always been a crown jewel because it is rich agriculturally and in minerals, steel, oil and gas. I think that has some bearing on what Putin is trying to do."
Tomson said he isn't anti-Russian but believes "Russia is for Russians and Ukraine is for Ukrainians. If people (in Ukraine) consider themselves Russian, they should move back to Russia."
In a statement issued on Monday, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said the Ukrainian people "want and deserve a unified, stable, secure and prosperous country free from Russian interference."
Despite the global tension, Tomson said, "During the four-day festival, everyone's Ukrainian."