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Ukraine: Pope Arrives For Controversial Visit, Holds First Open-Air Mass

Kyiv, 25 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II arrived in Kyiv Saturday (23 June) to start a five-day visit to Ukraine. On Sunday (24 June), he held the first of four open-air masses.

It is the first time any pope has visited Ukraine, whose population of 50 million is predominantly Orthodox. There are around six million Ukrainian Catholics, mostly Greek Catholics who observe Eastern-rite ritual but accept the pope's supremacy.

Most believers belong to the three Orthodox Churches which exist in the country. Two of those are Ukrainian and have welcomed the pope's visit, but the third is a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and has fiercely opposed the visit.

Russian Orthodox believers held protests in Kyiv last week and some, including priests, have threatened to disrupt the pope's tour by blocking the roads he will travel along and by infiltrating the four open-air services he will conduct during his five-day stay.

However there was calm at the start of the visit when Pope John Paul arrived at Kyiv's main airport, where he was welcomed by President Leonid Kuchma.

The pope accepted the traditional Ukrainian welcoming gift of a bowl of salt and bread and, in a gesture that has long been a hallmark of his foreign tours, he kissed a bowl containing some of the country's soil.

The pope made a 25-minute speech in Ukrainian where he said, "I have long waited to make this journey and am overjoyed that it has come to pass."

Many Ukrainians were astonished at the pope's fluency. One man, part of a crowd watching the speech in the television department of Kyiv's largest store, said, "He speaks better Ukrainian than the president."

The Ukrainian Catholic Church was banned by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1946. Many of its priests and faithful were executed or died in the Gulags. The pope has said that an important aim of his visit is to commemorate the suffering of Catholics who kept their faith alive during the communist era by holding secret services in safe houses or in forests and whose priests worked underground.

The pope greeted all the faiths in Ukraine in his opening message and said that he has come to Ukraine as part of his passionately held desire to try to reconcile the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Russian Orthodox leaders are angry that churches and property confiscated by the communists and handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church -- the only one allowed to function by Stalin -- have been returned to the Ukrainian Catholic Church. They also accuse the pope of proselytizing.

During his speech at the airport, the pope denied that he had come to proselytize. He said, "I have not come with the intention of proselytizing but to bear witness to Christ together with all Christians with every Church."

As on a difficult trip to Greece earlier this year, the pope said Catholic and Orthodox should seek forgiveness for offences against each other since the 1054 Schism that split the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches.

Sunday's (24 June) mass was the first of two he will hold in the capital, Kyiv. Today he flies to the western city of Lviv. Most of the country's Catholics are concentrated in the west of the country.

Around five million of Ukraine's six million Catholics are Greek Catholics who follow Eastern rites but acknowledge the pope as head of their Church. The rest are Roman Catholics.

In each of the two cities he will lead a mass on alternate days in the Latin rite and the Eastern rite.

The turnout for yesterday's mass at an airfield on the outskirts of Kyiv was lower than the 350,000 that organizers had hoped for. A Vatican spokesman said about 150,000 people were present. Independent observers put the figure at around half that.

Greek Catholic Church spokesman Father Ken Nowakowski attributed the low figure to the bad weather. It rained heavily during the mass and temperatures were cool.

He said that more people are expected to attend Monday's (25 June) Greek Catholic version.

Turnout may also have been hampered by the location of the mass. The airfield is relatively difficult to reach and for security reasons, private vehicles are not allowed to approach the area.

Many of those attending the mass waved blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, and a large contingent of Poles living in Ukraine and others who had traveled from Poland waved the Polish flag.

The mass was attended by President Leonid Kuchma. The president and his family had a private meeting with the pope Saturday (23 June) evening.

During the sermon the pope appealed for Christian unity and recalled how Kyiv, then the capital of the medieval state of Kyivan-Rus, was the cradle of Eastern European Christianity when it was Christianized in 988.

Noting that in 988 there was one Christian faith before the 1054 Schism which split Christianity into the Eastern and Western churches, the pope said both sides should look to the past to "help restore that situation of communion in which diversity of traditions poses no obstacle to unity in faith and church life."

The pope paid tribute to all Christians who suffered during what he called "the dark days of communist terror." After the mass he was scheduled to visit a forested area called Bykivna near Kyiv where thousands of Ukrainians were executed by Stalin's secret police in the 1930s and were buried in mass graves.

Later in the day, the pope was scheduled to meet representatives of the different faiths in Ukraine, including Orthodox Christian, Jews, and Muslims.

Ukraine's population of 50 million is predominantly Orthodox. Believers belong to one of three Orthodox Churches. Two are Ukrainian and have welcomed the pope's visit, but the third is a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and has opposed the visit.

Russian Orthodox believers held protests in Kyiv last week and some have threatened to disrupt the pope's tour by blocking roads he will travel along.

But there have been few disruptions so far. A small group of Russian Orthodox protesters demonstrated against the pope's visit in Kyiv but were kept far away from routes traveled by the pontiff.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said after the mass that the pope had talked to him for 14 years about visiting Ukraine and had now fulfilled one of his most heartfelt wishes. He said: "the pope is living a dream, he dreamed of this many years ago and now it is a reality."