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Ukraine: Papal Visit Remains Without Prospects

Prague, 4 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, has been accorded a warm welcome by Ukraine's political leaders but he appears to have failed to improve prospects for a papal visit there.

Sodano arrived in Kyiv three days ago (June 1) for a five-day visit. Yesterday he met with President Leonid Kuchma for talks about a possible visit by the Pontiff and the return of the Church's property confiscated during Soviet times. Today, Sodano was to meet with Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko and open the Apostolic Nunciature office.

The relations between Ukraine and the Vatican are expanding. Kuchma visited the Vatican three years ago, and last year met the pope in Poland while visiting with other Central European presidents. It has also been reported in the Ukrainian media that Kuchma would soon appoint an ambassador to the Vatican to strengthen ties.

There is little prospect, however, for the papal visit to Ukraine in the foreseeable future because of the religious tension in the country.

The pope has long been reported to be interested in visiting Ukraine -- he has already visited more than 100 countries during his almost 20 years in the office. During recent years there have been occasional rumors that such a visit might have been in the offing. But the Kyiv government remains reluctant.

Kuchma's spokesman, Olexander Maydannyk, told reporters yesterday: "When this visit will take place, if at all, is too early to say." Maydannyk went on to note that a visit by the Pope "would take long preparations" and he added that the Pontiff would not want "to upset relations between religions" in Ukraine.

It is precisely the tense relationship between religious denominations in the country that have long prevented the papal visit. Ukraine seems still torn by continuing disputes between various religious groups, and this is the root of spiritual and also nationalistic tension.

The country is mostly Orthodox Christian, although the Orthodox Church has split during recent years between those who recognize the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow -- the Russian Orthodox Church -- and those who insist on the primacy of Ukrainian clergy -- the Ukrainian Independent Orthodox Church. Ukraine also has a large Greek Catholic minority which is particularly strong in the western part of the country.

Both Orthodox Churches are united, however, in their opposition to Pope John Paul II's visits to the areas in which they dominate. They have assumed these visits to be essentially efforts by the pope to strengthen the Catholic Church and considered them potentially detrimental to their own institutional prestige and spiritual appeal.

The five million-strong Greek Catholic Church -- also known as the Uniate Church -- recognizes the pope as spiritual head while using eastern Orthodox rites. Closely associated with Ukrainian nationalist movements, the Church was forcibly merged after World War II by the communists into the Moscow-led Orthodox Church, which took over its churches and property. Most Greek Catholic priests were sent into exile to Siberia and Central Asia.

The Church was re-legalized only in 1991 and since that time has been involved in disputes over property with Orthodox denominations. These disputes have at times spilled over into violence.

This tension has somewhat subsided during recent years, but it has not disappeared. Recently, Archbishop Augustin of the Russian Orthodox Church in the western city of Lviv told a western reporter the "the first target of (Cardinal Angelo) Sodano's visit is to support Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Catholic expansionism in Ukraine."

Pope John Paul has repeatedly tried to persuade Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II of the need to establish grounds for cooperation and reach reconciliation. He has failed. And the prospects for this happening any time soon appear bleak.

The apparent failure of Cardinal Sodano to arrange a papal visit to Ukraine only confirm that. The pope has also tried, but failed, to gain official invitation to travel to Russia.