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Ukraine: Protests Over Papal Visit Highlight Religious Divide

As Ukraine prepares for its first papal visit later this month, the country's foreign minister has expressed concern over mounting protests from Orthodox clergy and citizens who consider the visit an affront to their faith. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports that the historic trip has exposed sharp divides in Ukraine's religious communities.

Prague, 13 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, several hundred Russian Orthodox priests and nuns marched through the Ukrainian capital Kyiv demanding that the impending visit of Pope John Paul be canceled:

"The Roman Pope is the Antichrist!"

This and similar demonstrations in recent weeks led Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko this week to criticize the growing protests and call for calm during the historic papal visit, which begins at the end of next week (23-27 June).

Zlenko, who heads the organizing committee responsible for the visit, on 11 June voiced concern about the numerous reported plans to disrupt the Pope's scheduled appearances in Ukraine.

Zlenko called the plans the work of "provocateurs and extremists who may not be acting on behalf of their religious convictions, but rather in order to achieve their political or other goals."

He urged all political and religious groups to show restraint during the Pope's visit in order to avoid danger to any of the up to two million people expected to gather for masses in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and the western city of Lviv.

Pope John Paul's visit -- the first-ever papal visit to Ukraine -- is being eagerly awaited by the country's Catholics. Comprising both Greek and Roman Catholics, they are concentrated in Western Ukraine and make up just 10 percent of the country's religious believers, who are predominantly Orthodox Christian.

The Catholic Church, which has strong traditional links to Ukrainian nationalism, was banned by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944. Many of its clergy and faithful were either executed or sent to prison camps.

But the church continued to function underground until it was re-legalized in 1989. It has since rebuilt a stronghold in Western Ukraine, regaining many of the former Catholic churches taken over by Orthodox congregations following Stalin's ban. However, tensions continue to simmer between the country's Catholics and Orthodox.

Ukraine has three Orthodox Churches. Two of them are Ukrainian, and have welcomed the Pope's visit. The third, which is the largest and has strong ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, has condemned the trip. It says the country's Catholics are using the visit as an attempt to convert Orthodox believers to Catholicism.

The Russian Orthodox Church is also uncomfortable because of its own origins in the medieval state of Kyivan Rus, based in what is now Kyiv and the site where the region's Slavs first converted to Christianity. Two powerful symbols of Slav Orthodoxy -- the Pecherska Lavra underground monastery and the Church of Saint Sophia, where the first conversions took place -- are both located in Kyiv. But with Ukraine no longer an official part of the Russian or Soviet empires, Russian Orthodox leaders there say their claim as the leading Slav Orthodox Church is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

The Pope has said one of his goals in visiting Ukraine is to help repair the schism between Catholics and Orthodox Christians that occurred in the 11th century. But his remarks have done little to soothe Ukraine's Russian Orthodox Church, which has staged most of the demonstrations against the Pope's visit.

On 11 June, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexii II, who has publicly refused to meet with Pope John Paul, said the Ukraine visit will "cause new confrontation between religious confessions there." Russian Orthodox priests in Ukraine have been using the media, as well as their pulpits, to criticize the Pope's visit.

Last month, the Pope defused similar hostilities in a visit to Greece -- an almost exclusively Orthodox country -- by asking forgiveness for 1,000 years of sins committed by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians. But as one woman protesting last week showed, the Pope may face stiffer resistance in Ukraine:

"What is the papacy? It's the biggest enemy of the Orthodox people, of all people. There's only one true faith in the world -- the Orthodox faith."

Many within the Russian Orthodox Church have threatened to hold more demonstrations during the Pope's visit. Some religious extremists have reportedly suggested that they will try to disrupt the Pope's schedule during his stay.

Father Gerontiy is a Russian Orthodox priest at the Pecherska Lavra Monastery. As one of the leaders of last week's protest, he said there is much to lose from Pope John Paul's visit:

"We don't want him to come here and proselytize, to be a missionary. What do we need that for? His program is like a nightmare for us. If an enemy comes to you, are you going to keep quiet? And he is an enemy of man's souls."

Father Gerontiy said the Pope would be stopped by demonstrators if he attempted to visit either Pecherska Lavra or the Saint Sophia Cathedral.

"We will never allow him into the Lavra. The people have said that they will lie down in order to block his path, not only for one week, but two, three. Nobody will get into the Lavra, just as they will not get into Saint Sofia. They're our holy shrines."

The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, dismissed accusations that the Pope's visit was aimed at winning Catholic converts, and said the pontiff had hoped to meet with all of the country's church leaders. In fact, with the exception of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pope John Paul will meet the leaders of all of Ukraine's Christian denominations. Cardinal Husar says he will also meet with Jewish and Muslim leaders in Kyiv:

"The accusations being made about the persecution of the Orthodox in western Ukraine, or about proselytizing, are so far removed from the truth it seems to me that it is difficult to accept these are the real reasons for the cause of the disputes [between the Catholic and Orthodox churches]."

Husar says he plans to hold in-depth talks with Russian Orthodox Church leaders in hopes that dialogue will eventually resolve disputes between the two churches. But so far, he says, Russian Orthodox leaders have been reluctant to engage in such a dialogue:

"I would be very glad to understand the cause [of the disputes] and why such repugnance [for the Catholic Church] exists. It pains me to think that we may truly be, for reasons we are unaware of, inflicting pain on our brother Christians."

Organizers say they expect more than two million people will come to see the Pope during his visit. They said this week that 600,000 invitations have already been issued for the two scheduled services in Kyiv. The Pope is also scheduled to meet with President Leonid Kuchma before flying to Lviv, where 1.6 million people have been invited to attend additional masses.