Pope John Paul II tomorrow begins a five-day visit to largely Orthodox Christian Ukraine, the first ever by the head of the Roman Catholic Church. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Kyiv on the preparations for the Pope's trip.
Kyiv, 22 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The finishing touches are being made today for the first-ever visit of a pope to Ukraine.
Pope John Paul II is due to arrive just after midday Saturday (23 June) to begin a five-day visit.
Only some six million of Ukraine's predominantly Orthodox Christian population of 50 million are Catholics. Five million are Greek Catholics -- an Eastern-rite church that acknowledges the supremacy of the pope -- and the remainder are Roman Catholics.
The Catholic Church was outlawed under communism, and many of its clergy and faithful were executed or oppressed. But the church continued to function underground until it was allowed to work openly again in 1989.
The pope has long wanted to come to Ukraine to pay tribute to the Catholics who suffered under communism and to continue his attempts at reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
The pope will begin his visit in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and will also journey to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Most of Ukraine's Catholics are concentrated in the west of the country.
Today, workers in both cities were still working hard to smarten up buildings with paint and cleaning the streets along the pope's routes.
Crowds of people who want to attend the four public masses the pope will preside over in Ukraine lined up at Catholic churches where special passes were distributed.
Ukrainian authorities have deployed a massive security operation out of fear that some groups opposed to the visit may try to disrupt it. Police officers have visited every building along the routes the pope may take, warning people they must not allow strangers into the buildings, venture out onto balconies, or even look out of windows when the papal cavalcade drives. The pope will travel in a white vehicle with tall bullet-proof glass sides.
Ukrainian Catholic Church spokesman Father Andriy Onuferko says that up to two million people could attend the masses -- about half a million in Kyiv and the rest in Lviv. He said tens of thousands of Ukrainians living abroad and thousands of faithful from neighboring countries -- mainly Poland -- are expected to swell the crowds from Ukraine.
"I know that people from Poland will come to Lviv for the Roman Catholic liturgy, just as when the pope was in Poland many Ukrainians traveled to see him there. And let God grant that as many as possible come to pray at this event."
Hundreds of clergy and Ukrainian government officials have been working for months on the details of the trip. Onuferko says that the many difficulties they encountered were overcome in a way that promises success for the visit.
"What was the most difficult [problem]? To put it simply -- everything [was difficult]. How to explain this? First, every visit of the holy father is a complex undertaking. It involves very close cooperation with the host government. Take into account, on the one hand, that [Ukraine] is a relatively young country and, on the other hand, that our Church emerged from being outlawed at about the same time as Ukraine gained independence -- and then you can understand that we lacked, to a certain extent, experience, the personnel, and some resources."
The pope will be welcomed tomorrow at Kyiv's main Boryspil airport by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. The president invited John Paul to Ukraine in his capacity as the head of the Vatican state.
In the early evening, the pope will have a private meeting with Kuchma and his family at the presidential residence in central Kyiv, the Mariyinski Palace. Afterwards, he will meet with prominent representatives of Ukraine's political, cultural, and business sectors.
On Sunday morning (24 June), the pope will hold the first of the public masses at the Chayka airfield on the outskirts of Kyiv. The mass will be a Latin-rite mass, the kind familiar to most Roman Catholics. Those who want to attend have been warned to start off hours before the mass is scheduled to begin, because most vehicle traffic will be halted 5 km from the airfield and the crowds will face a long walk.
In the afternoon, the pope will meet with Ukraine's senior Catholic leaders at the residence of the Apostolic Nuncio -- the Vatican equivalent of an ambassador. That will be followed by a meeting with leaders of other faiths in Ukraine -- Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Ukraine has three Orthodox churches. Two are independent Ukrainian entities, while the third is tied to the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Orthodox leaders have strongly opposed the visit, accusing the pope of wanting to attract believers away from their church.
Father Onuferko says the Catholic Church is disappointed that the Russian Orthodox Church will not be represented at Sunday's meeting.
"I think everyone will be present [at the meeting] except the Russian Orthodox Church, which as we all know has expressed itself as very opposed to this trip. Our church feels that it is a shame, and is very sad that the Russian Orthodox Church has taken such a position."
The Russian Orthodox Church has mounted demonstrations against the visit, including a march by some 2,000 through Kyiv's streets yesterday.
The pontiff will hold his first Greek Catholic-rite service on 25 June at the Chayka airfield and in the early evening will depart by plane for Lviv.
It is in Lviv where the majority of those wishing to see the pope are expected to attend mass. John Paul will hold an open-air Latin-rite mass on Tuesday morning (26 June) at the city's hippodrome. The rest of day will be taken up with meetings with Lviv's Catholic and community leaders.
On 27 June, the pope will hold a Greek Catholic mass at the same venue, a service expected to attract the largest attendance. It is at this mass that the pontiff will beatify 27 Catholics -- all except one Greek Catholics -- who died for their faith in Ukraine and are regarded as martyrs. Beatification is the next-to-last stage in a process that ends with religious figures being declared saints.
Most of the 27 to be beatified were executed or died in concentration camps at the hands of the communist regime. But they also include some killed by the Nazis during Ukraine's occupation by German forces during World War II.
On Wednesday afternoon, there will be a farewell ceremony for the pope in Lviv's baroque Saint George's cathedral. He is scheduled to depart for Rome at 1900 that day.