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Ukraine: Russian Church Contests Papal Visit

Last week, Pope John Paul completed a three-country tour that included Greece, where many in the overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian population opposed his presence in their country. Next month, the Pope goes to another predominantly Orthodox country, Ukraine, where the visit has been contested by one of the country's three Orthodox churches. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports on preparations for the Pope's Ukraine trip.

Prague, 16 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When Pope John Paul visited Greece earlier this month, he was greeted by thousands of Orthodox Christian demonstrators who opposed his visit. They gave voice to centuries-old grievances felt by Orthodox believers against the Roman Catholic Church, which they accuse of splitting the Christian world and committing a variety of more secular crimes.

The Pope succeeded in defusing much of the hostility with a mixture of charisma and the offer of an unexpected apology to the Greek Orthodox Church for sins committed against it by the Vatican.

Next month (23-26 June), the Pope will visit Ukraine, a trip that he has long been eager to make. Only some four million of Ukraine's 50 million inhabitants are Catholics. They are mainly of the Greek Catholic rite, which celebrates mass in a manner similar to the Orthodox but acknowledges the Pope as its leader. There is also a small Roman Catholic community.

There are three Orthodox churches in Ukraine. Two are entirely indigenous -- the Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church loyal to the Kyiv Patriarchate -- but the third owes allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox churches are ready to extend a welcome to the Pope, but the church loyal to Moscow seems implacably hostile to the visit. It has asked the Pope to postpone his trip and says it will refuse to attend a meeting he is scheduled to have with the leaders of all the faiths in Ukraine.

Catholics are mainly concentrated in western Ukraine, the country's most nationally conscious area, where the Greek Catholic Church was for centuries intricately entwined with Ukrainians' attempts to preserve a separate identity and win independence.

Stalin outlawed the Catholic Church in Ukraine in 1944 and only the Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to function officially. It took over those Catholic churches that were not destroyed or used for industrial purposes like warehousing.

At the time, many Catholic clergy and the faithful were executed, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted for their faith. But they kept it alive through an underground network of priests who held masses in secrecy.

The Catholic Church was legalized in 1989 and very quickly re-established itself as the largest in western Ukraine. Many churches were reclaimed from the Orthodox Church and scores of new ones have since been built.

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine loyal to Moscow echoes the Russian Church's complaints that the Roman Catholic Church is trying to proselytize in Russia and Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church traces its roots back to the Christianization of the ancient Kyivan Rus state that centered around what is the capital of modern Ukraine. It regards the Pope's visit as an intrusion.

Earlier this year, the head of the Orthodox Church loyal to Moscow, Metropolitan Vladimir, voiced another reason for opposing the Pope's visit. He said the Pope's trip would lend support to the two purely Ukrainian Orthodox churches, which he has condemned as "schismatics."

The Pope will be on a state visit in Ukraine because he was invited by the government in his capacity as leader of the Vatican. Pope John Paul is due to visit Kyiv and the western city of Lviv, the seat of both the Roman and Greek Catholic churches in Ukraine.

A recent public opinion poll showed that, countrywide, most Ukrainians either approve of the visit or don't care one way or the other. Almost one-half of them (44 percent) said they viewed the visit positively, while about a quarter (23 percent) expressed their indifference.

In western Ukraine, and particularly in Lviv, the people are overwhelmingly in favor of the visit. Hardly a day goes by without the trip being discussed in the local media. The subject also often crops up in the conversations of ordinary people who have invested a variety of hopes in the visit.

Many -- like Irena Fot, a student -- want Ukraine to have a single Christian Church. She sees the visit as a step toward that goal. "Possibly the Pope's visit will at last provide the opportunity to unite all Ukrainian churches because at the moment the Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the other Orthodox churches and the Greek Catholics celebrate in their own separate ways. We need to unite our churches."

Doctor Yuriy Bilyk also expresses the hope that Ukraine's churches will one day unite. He thinks that the Pope's record of being able to reach out to other faiths and cultures will provide a valuable lesson to Ukraine's divided Christians.

"I regard the Pope's visit as having great significance. I wouldn't differentiate between Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Orthodox. He's coming to all the faithful, to meet with all of them. Therefore, I think this could be yet another step toward the unification of all Ukrainian churches."

A spokesman for the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Father Ken Nowakivski, tells RFE/RL that the Pope will hold separate Latin Rite and Greek Catholic Rite masses, first in Kyiv and then in Lviv. Nowakivski said that authorities throughout Ukraine have shown enthusiasm for the Pope's visit.

"I think we've had very good support from the Ukrainian government right from the very first day that the trip was announced. Special organizational committees have been set up in both Lviv and Kyiv and we've worked very well with the Ukrainian government administration."

He said that the task of organizing the Pope's visit has been very complicated. Not only do sites have to be prepared to accommodate large crowds, but provision has to be made for people to reach them. Both in Kyiv and Lviv, masses will be held outside the cities, where public transport is poor.

Nowakivski said that poor weather earlier this year had hampered work at the sites, but with a recent improvement in weather work was surging ahead.

"I think [the preparations] are going very well. We've had several challenging moments because of the weather, but now that spring has come we're preparing the venues for the maximum participation of Ukrainians and people coming to Ukraine -- pilgrims coming to the Holy Father's visit sites."

Nowakivski said that a great deal of consideration has been given to the Pope's security and his fragile health. He said it was impossible to estimate how many people would come to see the Pope, but some predict that up to a million will attend over the course of the four-day visit.

"It's difficult to tell at this stage but we've received information that many Ukrainian Greek Catholics are coming from Poland. There will also be Roman Catholics coming from our old neighbors, including Belarus, Russia -- and from Kazakhstan we also expect people coming -- and Hungary. Many Ukrainians will be coming from abroad -- from the United States, Canada, and Western Europe."

The warm weather this week in Ukraine certainly seemed to be favoring preparations for the Pope's visit. But last Saturday (12 May) in Moscow 1,000 Russian Orthodox protested the trip, and it remains unlikely that the attitudes of their co-faithful in Ukraine toward Pope John Paul's visit will thaw either.