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Ukraine: Not All Orthodox Opposed To Papal Visit

Pope John Paul's visit to Ukraine, which begins this weekend, has stirred up strong feelings among the country's churches. The visit highlights not only the divide between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but also differences within the branches of the Orthodox Church itself. However, RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde reports from Kyiv that many believers of both beliefs are choosing to ignore religious differences, and are preparing to welcome the pope in what they call a spirit of Christian tolerance.

Kyiv, 20 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "We ask for good weather and for strength for the holy father's visit to Ukraine. Lord hear us."

At Sunday mass in St. Alexander's Cathedral in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Roman Catholics pray for a peaceful papal visit to Ukraine. Pope John Paul II's five-day trip (23-27 June) to Kyiv and the west Ukrainian city of Lviv is being welcomed enthusiastically by Ukraine's one million Roman Catholics and nearly five million Greek Catholics, who follow Byzantine rites but recognize the pope as their spiritual leader.

Ukraine's Catholics are far outnumbered by followers of Orthodox Christianity, the country's traditional faith. The leaders of the largest Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate, have refused to meet the pope or sanction his visit. They accuse the Catholic Church of proselytizing in Orthodox lands and of persecuting the Orthodox faithful.

Since Ukraine attained independence, all of the country's traditional denominations have undergone a major revival and new religions and sects have blossomed. During the past 10 years, the Roman Catholic Church more than doubled its membership. And by 2000, Ukraine's Greek Catholic Church -- which was established at the end of the 16th century and dissolved by Stalin in 1946 -- had become larger than it was before World War II. In recent years, however, the expansion of both Catholic churches has slowed.

The religious revival has been accompanied by an increase in church conflicts. The Orthodox Church split in 1993 into the Kyiv and the Moscow patriarchates, which continue to bicker over property and Ukrainian sovereignty. In western Ukraine, where more than 90 percent of Greek Catholic parishes are located, both branches of the Orthodox Church have lost many buildings, and even entire parishes, to the Greek Catholic Church. Since 1989, when Catholicism was re-legalized in Ukraine, the Greek Catholic Church has begun to reclaim what it lost in 1946, sparking resentment among the local Orthodox.

Oleksiy Skorik works for an Orthodox organization called Mission for a Holy Earth, which is linked to the Kyiv Patriarchate. He says most conflicts over church property and parishes have been resolved, and cannot be used to justify Orthodox opposition to the pope's visit:

"There is no church building which is in question and over which there can be conflict. And in the same way, those people who [are religious believers] have already decided which church to adhere to, whether Orthodox, [Roman] Catholic, or Greek Catholic."

Orthodox objections to the pope's trip are less rooted in property disputes than in ethnic and political concerns. While the Orthodox Church sees itself as a purely Slavic faith, for example, Ukraine's Catholic Church has drawn priests from other countries to fill the gap left by communism.

The Catholic Church is also seen as allied with Western nations and values, while the Orthodox Church is traditionally Eastern. The Moscow Patriarchate's objections to the pope's visit have been echoed by Russian politicians as well as by communists in the Ukrainian parliament. But the Kyiv Patriarchate, which wants an independent Ukrainian church, has said it supports the visit, thus widening the divide between the two Orthodox branches.

Such issues seem of little concern to most of Kyiv's Orthodox faithful. Although a vocal minority has taken to the streets to denounce the visit, the response of Anna Natorenko, attending Sunday service at St. Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv, is more typical:

"We've watched [the pope] and prayed for [him]. He is a great priest. Our faith is God's: We all believe in the same God, and God is one in the Trinity for all believers. We want [the pope] to come and we pray God to give him health."

Saint Michael's Cathedral, which is part of the Kyiv Patriarchate, is only one of the many Orthodox churches to be newly built or rebuilt in Kyiv. Orthodox leaders appear to have little trouble finding the means to build these churches -- or the worshippers to fill them. In fact, for many Orthodox Christians, the threat of Catholic proselytizing is not a pressing concern. Catholic parishioner Valentina Kovaleva says many Orthodox believers have already purchased tickets to attend the Papal masses:

"Ninety percent of the people now coming [for tickets] are Orthodox. They are very tolerant and, in addition, they say they are surprised that some people don't want the visit to take place."

Kovaleva says the Orthodox who plan to attend the masses are motivated by respect for the pope's holiness:

"A large part of Orthodox believers will come and pray with us, not out of [simple] interest but out of knowledge that the holy father is a great individual on this earth and that he can bring only good, and no harm, to Orthodoxy or to our country."

Many of the Orthodox believers say the pope's visit would be especially welcome if he could help end the conflicts between the different branches of the Orthodox Church.