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Ukraine: Greek Catholics Move Headquarters To Capital

Cardinal Lubomyr Husar (file photo) Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, celebrated Mass for some 3,000 believers outside a cathedral under construction in Kyiv on 21 August, thus marking the move of his church's headquarters from Lviv to Kyiv. The move was approved by the late Pope John Paul II and confirmed by his successor, Benedict XVI. Simultaneously with the transfer of the headquarters, Cardinal Husar changed his official title from Major Archbishop of Lviv to Major Archbishop of Kyiv and Halychyna (Galicia).

The celebration took place among noisy protests by several hundred Orthodox believers and representatives of ultraleftist political groups, for whom the move represented an intolerable incursion of Catholicism into what is seen as canonical territory of Orthodoxy. Arguably, the transfer of the see of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church eastward adds more fuel to a simmering conflict between Catholic and Orthodox believers in Ukraine in particular, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican in general.

"Thanks to monks and missionaries, Christianity made its way from here -- in Kyiv -- throughout the Slav world," Cardinal Husar said in his homily, according to Reuters. "Kyiv earned fame as the cradle of Christianity in the Slav east. But we allowed the church that was established in this holy place to be divided. And we ask ourselves: Is there a way to restore that initial unity to bring confrontation to an end?"

Husar's words were drowned out from time to time by shouting from the protest rally, which was separated from the Greek Catholic flock by a police cordon. Demonstrators reportedly chanted antipresidential slogans, called Greek Catholics "traitors," and voiced support for the unification of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Against the worst expectations, the protest did not turn violent.

A History Of Division

Ukraine's religious cleavages run not only between the Greek Catholics and the Orthodox, but also between the Orthodox themselves, who make up a majority of believers in the country. The Orthodox community in Ukraine is divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Only the first, largest organization -- which is the administrative branch of the Russian Orthodox Church -- objects to the move of the Greek Catholic Church headquarters to the country's capital. As, incidentally, does the Moscow Patriarchate, which accuses the Vatican of expansionism and proselytism with regard to Orthodoxy.

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II slammed the transfer of the seat of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from Lviv to Kyiv as an "unfriendly step" that will add further tension to relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican. "This move cannot be justified either from a historical point of view or by church rules and canons. The Kievan chair from the very first years of its existence was an ecclesiastical capital of the Russian Orthodox Church, first as the metropolitan center and later as the major chair among the Ukrainian dioceses," the Moscow Patriarchate website quoted him as saying.

The protracted Greek Catholic-Orthodox controversy in Ukraine takes its origin in 15th- and 16th-century church history, which can hardly be commended as a period of Christian love and peace. In 1439 some Orthodox hierarchs, urged on by the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, signed the so-called Union of Florence, whereby they accepted the primacy of the pope and settled some theological questions in Rome's favor, in exchange for anticipated assistance to Constantinople's struggle against the Ottoman Turks. However, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, and the Union of Florence was subsequently rejected and condemned by an Orthodox Church synod.

A Tool Of Empire?

The Vatican made a more successful attempt at putting a part of Orthodoxy under its control in 1596, when some Orthodox bishops in the then Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania -- two states united by a political union -- signed the so-called Union of Brest (now a city in Belarus), whereby they accepted Roman Catholic dogmas and the supremacy of the pope but retained the Eastern rite and their own calendar of saints. The Greek Catholic Church (called also the Uniate Church), which was created in Brest, embraced a majority of former Orthodox believers in the 17th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, although the switch to a new faith led to numerous acts of violence and bloodshed on ethnically Belarusian and Ukrainian lands.

The expanding Russian Empire partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century jointly with Prussia and Austro-Hungary. Incidentally, one of the Russian diplomatic excuses for dismembering 18th-century Poland was intolerance of Roman Catholics toward their Orthodox brethren. Greek Catholic bishops were evicted from Kyiv by Empress Catherine II by the end of the 18th century, and the Union of Brest was formally liquidated in the Russian Empire by Emperor Nicholas I in 1839.

However, the Greek Catholic Church survived in Galicia (western Ukraine), a part of the Kingdom of Poland annexed by Austro-Hungary. The church also survived through the Polish rule over Galicia in 1918-39 and was banned by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin after western Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. In 1945, the Soviet authorities arrested all Greek Catholic Church hierarchs, and in 1946 a Greek Catholic synod orchestrated by Stalin decided to merge the Uniates with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Vatican declared that synod to be noncanonical and its decisions illegal. The Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, which went underground during the Soviet era, reemerged in 1989, after then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev officially recognized its existence.

Denominational Struggle

While many Ukrainians look at the current move of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church headquarters from Lviv to Kyiv with either sympathy or indifference, some religious activists of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate doubtless perceive the move as an emblematic setback for Orthodoxy in its struggle to ward off the expansion of Catholicism. "The Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate will consider this [move] as a great symbolic failure," Ukrainian political analyst Viktor Nebozhenko commented. "And some political forces will of course use Lubomyr Husar's move to Kyiv as a pretext for exacerbating interdenominational relations in Ukraine."

Regrettably, Nebozhenko may be right. The protest nearby the unfinished Resurrection of Christ Greek Catholic Cathedral in Kyiv on 21 August was attended by representatives of extreme leftist and pro-Russian forces, including the Progressive Socialist Party of Natalya Vitrenko and the radical Brotherhood association led by Dmytro Korchynskyy. These forces, which failed to win parliamentary representation in 2002, will in all probability use the religious factor -- the dissatisfaction of a significant part of Orthodox Ukrainians with the Greek Catholic move -- as an extra argument in their campaign for the 2006 parliamentary elections.