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Ukraine: Papal Visit Remains A Possibility

Prague, 17 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma has formally invited Pope John Paul to visit the country, but the timing of any such trip, its duration and geographical scope are uncertain.

Kuchma's invitation was delivered to the Vatican by Ukrainian Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko during his mid-December visit to Rome, but the move was not made public in Ukraine until almost two months later. The invitation was open-ended, with details on scheduling to be negotiated at a later time. There has been no response from the Vatican to the invitation.

Speaking from Kyiv, Oleksandr Martynenko -- Kuchma's press spokesman -- tells RFE/RL that the process could be slow:

"As far as I remember, this (the invitation) was delivered at the end of the year. The time of the visit has not been defined. This question will be discussed later on between the representatives of Ukraine and the Vatican. This is a long process. It would be an extraordinary event, so I assume that negotiations regarding timing of this visit and other circumstances might last for months."

But there is little doubt that Kuchma would like the pope to come this year. Kuchma is facing a difficult election in late October. A papal visit usually provides host leaders with important public-relations opportunities. A visit by the pope to Ukraine could certainly be regarded by Kuchma and his aides as politically beneficial in that it may serve to gain votes and bestow prestige on the incumbent.

Catholics of both the Roman and the Greek (Uniate) denominations constitute about 12 percent of Ukraine's population, with the heaviest concentration in the western part of the country. Their support could be an important factor in a close race.

The impression that the invitation might have been timed with political considerations in mind was further strengthened by the apparent neglect to involve major Christian churches in the decision.

Roman Catholic Bishop Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk -- who resides in Kyiv -- said the Roman Catholic Church was not officially notified prior to the invitation being made public. But he also noted that the church is "rarely" informed of decisions on religious matters taken by the government.

Greek Catholic Bishop Julian Gbur -- who also serves as secretary to the church's synod -- said he learned of the invitation to the pope from a television broadcast.

Both clerics were quick to express satisfaction with the government's move, recalling that their churches have for years petitioned the government to invite the pope to Ukraine. They expressed doubts, however, whether the visit could take place this year, precisely because of political events in the country. Besides the presidential contest, Ukraine is also preparing for parliamentary elections later this month.

The presidential invitation to the pope appears to have also surprised Ukraine's large Orthodox churches. Ukraine is mostly Orthodox Christian, although the 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. There is also the much smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The Russian church supporters constitute a majority of Ukrainian believers.

Relations between these churches have been tense, but they appear united in their opposition to Pope John Paul visiting areas in which they dominate. Their leaders have repeatedly emphasized that a papal visit will only serve to strengthen the Catholic Church. They also appear to see the prospect of the pope's visit as potentially detrimental to their own prestige and spiritual appeal.

Svatoslav Rechynsky -- a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church -- recently told a Polish reporter that "Ukraine is still not ready for the pope's visit," adding that "the faithful could protest the visit."

Pope John Paul has long been reported to carry a wish to visit Ukraine. He has already visited more than 130 countries during his more than 20 years as pontiff. Last year, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano was accorded a warm welcome by Ukraine's political leaders when he visited the country to open the Apostolic Nunciature in Kyiv.

Efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican to resolve their differences and achieve reconciliation have so far failed, however. Prospects for this happening any time soon appear bleak.

The pope's visit to Ukraine -- when and if it takes place -- could become an important step toward realizing that goal.