Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ukraine: Churches Divided By Politics And Beliefs

Pope John Paul II began his five-day tour of Ukraine on 23 June, the first by any pope. It has been fiercely opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church, one of the three Orthodox churches in Ukraine. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky talked to some religious experts about the complex relationship between Ukraine's churches.

Kyiv, 25 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine has a population which is predominantly Orthodox Christian, with an estimated 10 million believers split between three Orthodox churches.

There also are about six million Catholics -- one million Roman Catholics and five million Greek Catholics, also called Uniates. These follow the Eastern rite and their services and icon-decorated churches are very similar to those of the Orthodox. However they proclaim the pope as the head of their church.

An opinion poll published on 22 June showed that the majority of Ukrainians welcomed the pope's visit while just over four percent opposed it.

Those who oppose it are mainly members of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church operating in Ukraine. The other two Orthodox churches are independent of the Russian church and have welcomed the pope. Their leaders met him at a ceremony on 24 June while the Russian Orthodox leaders have refused to do so.

Some Russian Orthodox priests and faithful are holding prayers in protest of the visit throughout the pope's trip. Others who talked to RFE/RL compared the pope's visit to Hitler's invasion of Ukraine 60 years ago. They said they intend to disrupt his visit by infiltrating the four open-air masses he will hold during his stay in Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church has long had a hostile relationship with the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The Ukrainian Catholic Church, mostly concentrated in the west of the country, has always been closely associated with Ukrainians' desire for independence. Stalin outlawed it in 1946 and many of its priests and faithful were executed or persecuted.

The Catholic Church's property was handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church, the only one allowed to function by the communists. The Russian Orthodox now are angry at having been forced to hand back much of that property.

The Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Alexii II, also has accused the pope of attempting to proselytize -- to convert the Orthodox to Catholic -- during his visit.

But the director of the Religion and Philosophy faculty at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Professor Anatoly Kolodny, said the Russian Orthodox Church also has a long-running dispute with the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

He said the larger of these two, which is called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, was set up in 1992. Its leader, Metropolitan Filaret, formerly belonged to the communist-era Russian church. When he and some of his followers decided to form a separate Ukrainian church, he was "anathematized" by the Russian church -- condemned as a heretic.

The third Orthodox church is called the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church and in recent decades catered to the spiritual needs of the Ukrainian diaspora and was, of course, illegal in Ukraine during communist times.

It enjoys legitimacy in the Orthodox world because it has been approved by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the nearest the Orthodox Church has to a universal leader.

But so far the two independent Ukrainian churches have suffered from tensions among themselves and have not been able to unite and receive official approval for their existence, although Kolodny believes those differences will be resolved shortly.

"I think that we are close to this [unification] and the Patriach of Constantinople, Bartolomew has said that he is ready to approve this if these two churches unify."

But he doubts the Russian Church will ever give its blessing to an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He said the Russian Church is worried because its claims to authority in the Orthodox world are based on the Christianization of the medieval state of Kyivan-Rus in 988. Both Russia and Ukraine claim their states descend from the medieval Kyivan-Rus state which was on the territory that is now modern Ukraine -- something that presents difficulties for Russian Church historians.

The director of Kyiv's Center for Religious Information and Freedom, Doctor Lyudmilla Filipovich, said that the Russian Church's attitude mirrors the traditional imperialist attitude of Russia as a whole towards Ukraine.

"I think that the Russian Orthodox Church will never voluntarily agree for Ukrainian Orthodox churches to become independent. That is against their interests, not only political but canonic, dogmatic, church and so forth."

Filipovich added that once an internationally recognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church is formed there will be more pressure on the Russian Church to hand over churches and other sites it currently controls. Those would include one of the Orthodox world's holiest shrines, the Pecherska Lavra -- the Monastery of the Caves -- in Kyiv.

She also said that the Russian Church derives a huge amount of its income from Ukraine -- another reason for its reluctance to countenance a separate Ukrainian Church.

"I think it's a combination of historical and psychological factors. But the main reason, I think, is political. Today, as you know, in Ukraine the idea that the Soviet imperial system has been destroyed but the spiritual one that is led by the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexii, remains, is very popular and it is obvious he will try to preserve that."

Kolodny and Filipovich are both Orthodox and both welcomed the pope's visit.

"I would say that this visit has two aspects. One social and the other spiritual. As concerns the social aspect, Ukraine's identity as a sovereign nation is being highlighted and also it points to the democracy in our country as being mature enough to welcome the leaders of different religions."

He believes that the visit will help to raise religious awareness among the Orthodox as well as the Catholics of Ukraine and may contribute to hastening the unification of the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

"As to the spiritual aspect of the visit, then this visit will obviously contribute to the strengthening of spiritual life and, apart from that, the pope bears a message, he's a philosopher. This visit should contribute to an increased level of awareness of God's word among the Orthodox who are in crisis because today the Orthodox in Ukraine do not have theological schools and learning and they seem to have an attraction for the medieval type of thinking that the Catholic Church has long overcome."

Many Ukrainians -- both Orthodox and Catholic -- yearn not only for the unification of their Orthodox churches but also for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, created at the end of the 16th century, to join them in one single church. Filipovich believes that is not impossible.

"I think that as Christians we always have to believe in this [unification] without reservations and not just believe in it but to act and with each step, each thought, each word to create the conditions for the unification of all the churches. There is actually very little that separates the Greek Catholics and the Orthodox."

Perhaps the legacy of the pope's visit to Ukraine will be to create the foundations for at least closer dialogue between all of Ukraine's churches.