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Ukraine: Signs Appear That Pope May Visit Next Year

Prague, 4 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Recent signals from Kyiv and the Vatican indicate a visit by Pope John Paul II to Ukraine next year is increasingly likely.

Only a few months ago there was little or no prospect for a papal visit to Ukraine at any time in the foreseeable future. The country seemed torn by continuing disputes between various religious groups, prompting powerful spiritual but also nationalistic tension.

While the pope was widely reported to have wanted to visit Ukraine -- he has already visited more than 100 countries during his 18 years in the office -- the prospects appeared bleak. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had told the pope during last year's talks at the Vatican that religious conflicts made a visit inopportune.

But this week, the president's chief of staff Dmytro Tabachnyk suggested in talking with a Western reporter that conditions might have changed to allow a papal visit in the near future.

"The situation looks stable for now," Tabachnyk was reported to have said, adding that religious rivalries can "soon become a part of the past."

Greek Catholic Bishop of Kyiv Lyubomyr Huzar was even more optimistic.

"Preparations have started for a papal visit," he said. "There are no doubts about that, but the visit cannot realistically take place before autumn next year."

Next week, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who is in charge within the Vatican Curia of relations with Eastern Catholic churches, is to arrive in Ukraine to take part in a religious conference commemorating the fourth centenary of founding of the Greek Catholic Church there. Silvestrini is likely to raise the issue of the papal visit with Ukrainian officials as well.

This turnaround is truly remarkable, signaling an improvement in the status of the Greek Catholic Church in a country in which the majority of the faithful belong to Orthodox churches. It also affirms an appeasement of religious tension in Ukraine.

The Greek Catholic Church -- also known as the Uniate Church -- was founded 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 areas surrounding the city of Lviv. It has about five million followers.

Ever since its re-emergence, the church has been involved in disputes over property with Orthodox denominations. These disputes have at times spilled over into violence. Three years ago Orthodox fundamentalists prevented the head of the Greek Catholic Church from holding an ecumenical service in Kyiv.

But tension appears to have subsided during recent months. And the Greek Catholic officials seem to assume that the papal visit would only reinforce the peace.

"The visit will have a very positive impact if there are no disputes or negative attitudes in advance," said bishop Huzar, adding that he hopes "most Orthodox believers will accept it."

Orthodox churches in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere have generally been opposed to Pope John Paul's visits to the areas in which they dominate. They have seen these visits as essentially efforts by the pope to strengthen the Catholic spiritual appeal, considered potentially detrimental to their own institutional and religious prerogatives.

The acceptance of the papal visit by the Ukrainian Orthodox churches would signal a major change in that attitude among at least some of the Orthodox clergy. This in itself could mark a development of major significance for the ecumenical movement as a whole.

It is, of course, not certain yet whether the visit will take place at all. The pope is already scheduled to take four separate major international trips next year. His physical condition -- the pope is to undergo a surgery this weekend in Rome -- may well prevent him for expanding this schedule. This may force a postponement of any Ukrainian plans or affect both the timing and the scope of the eventual visit.

But the very indication that a visit to Ukraine is seen by both the Vatican and the Ukrainian religious and secular officials as possible marks an important development in itself. And it has a major political dimension as well, further opening up former Soviet territory to the traditionally Western Catholic influences. The pope has already visited the Baltic states. He has tried but failed to gain permission to travel to Russia.