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Religious Disputes Still Affect Ukraine's Politics

Prague, May 21 (RFE/RL) -- There will be no papal visit this year to Ukraine. And none is likely in the foreseeable future.

Pope John Paul II wanted to go to Ukraine this year to take part in celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of founding of the Greek Catholic Church there.

The Greek Catholic Church - also known as the Uniate Church - was set up in 1596. It recognizes the pope as spiritual head, but uses eastern Orthodox rites.

Long associated with Ukrainian nationalist movements, the Church was forcibly merged after the World War II by the Communists into the Russian Orthodox Church, which took over its churches and property. Most Greek Catholic priests were sent into exile to Central Asian republics.

The Church was re-legalized only in 1991 and is now particularly active in western Ukraine, most notably in the areas surrounding the city of Lviv. It has about five-million followers.

The anniversary of the Church's founding is being currently marked by special services and mass pilgrimages in many parts of western Ukraine. The concluding ceremonies are to take place in the Vatican in July.

Speaking two days ago in the western Ukrainian village of Zarvanytsya, visiting Cardinal Idris Cassidy said that religious tension in Ukraine is too sharp for the pope to visit the country. "You have to have a climate by which the visit would promote the ecumenical cause and not create difficulties," said the cardinal, who serves as the Vatican's special envoy for ecumenical unity.

Cassidy was taking part in a local religious pilgrimage, but had earlier held talks in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and other officials. Kuchma had told the pope during last year's visit to the Vatican that religious conflicts in Ukraine made a visit inopportune. He is likely to have reiterated this view in the talks with Cassidy.

Indeed, during recent years there have been almost continuing disputes between various religious groups in Ukraine, prompting powerful spiritual but also nationalistic tension in the country.

Major problems have affected the Orthodox Church, which split four years ago into two: the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Independent Orthodox Church. The latter was set up as part of the general movement for Ukraine's independence from Russia. Its supporters tend to be strongly nationalistic and regard other orthodox believers as servants of Moscow.

The Russian Orthodox Church continues to recognize the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow and has refused to accept the new Ukrainian Church as legitimate. But the Russian Church's supporters still constitute a majority of Ukrainian believers

The split within the Ortodox Church and tension in relations with the Greek Catholic Church have led to disputes over property. Several churches in Ukraine have been closed as a result of these disputes.

The Ukrainian government insists that there can be no state-supported religion in the country. But this stand, in itself, creates occasional problems.

This was particularly evident when the police forcibly prevented the burial of Patriarch Volodymyr of the Ukrainian Independent Orthodox Church in Kyiv's Cathedral of St. Sophia.

One of the most sacred shrines of the world Orthodox religion, the cathedral was turned by the Soviet authorities into a museum.

The government's reason for the refusal to allow burial in the cathedral was that it is still a museum. But Volodymyr's followers charged that the government's decision was politically motivated and reflected its alleged preference for the Russian Church.

Patriarch Volodymyr was eventually buried in a makeshift grave dug by his followers in pavement in front of the cathedral. The Ukrainian Independent Orthodox Church is still insisting that the remains be put into the cathedral itself; and the government still says no.

To makes matters more complicated, the Ukrainian Church itself suffered an internal split, when some of its followers accused the current Patriarch Filaret of having cooperated with the Communist party and security police during the Soviet era, and established their own Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

In addition to the division within Ukraine's Orthodox Church and a continuing dispute between them and the Greek Catholic Church, there is also a latent conflict between all of them and the relatively small Roman Catholic Church which is active in western Ukraine. The Roman Church has been portrayed as a vestige of Polish political and cultural influence in Ukraine.

It is unlikely that the divisions among Ukraine's various Churches will be resolved in the foreseeable future. And recurrent flare-ups of tension between them often affect Ukrainian politics and operations of government.