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