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Russian Patriarch Visits Kyiv, But Motives Questioned

Patriarch Kirill (left) and the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Metropolitan Volodymyr, attend a ceremony in Kyiv.
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has begun a 10-day visit to Ukraine.

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill will visit historical religious sites aplenty during his trip. One of the highlights of the tour comes when he pays tribute to Grand Prince Vladimir, who converted to Christianity in 988 and Christianized the medieval state of Rus.

But it's not ancient history that is preoccupying many Ukrainians as Kirill's visit gets under way. Some suspect the patriarch is intent on increasing Russian influence in Ukraine, a state still in search of its own identity as an independent nation.

Kirill has described his visit as purely pastoral. "I have come here as a pilgrim to the banks of the Dniepr in order to touch the thousand-year-old history of our church," he said after a liturgy at the Hill of St. Vladimir in Kyiv.

He told Ukrainian Church media before the trip that he wants to visit believers around the country. He will also meet with theological students and preach on Ukrainian television. And for the first time, he will conduct a meeting in Ukraine of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.

But that's too much for some Ukrainian nationalists. They note that the Moscow Patriarchate controls the larger part of the divided Ukrainian Orthodox Church property, and they point to the traditional closeness of the Russian church to the Russian state.

To some nationalists, this adds up to an attempt to use religious links to increase Russian influence over Ukraine's political and cultural life. This they see as complementing the very concrete efforts of the government in Moscow, led by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, to keep Ukraine within Russia's sphere of influence. The Russian leadership particularly wants to keep Ukraine out of the NATO alliance.

A Unified Church

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko expressed his desire for an independent, unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church in remarks ahead of the patriarch's visit. He said a truly Ukrainian Church would be a "great historical truth."

Ukrainian nationalists protest against Kirill's visit in Kyiv.
In remarks on July 27, Kirill referred to church unity, but he meant the continued bonds between Moscow and Kyiv.

"I appeal to the heavenly hosts shining over these holy lands," Kirill said. "Together with them, we will pray for the well-being and prosperity of Ukraine, for peace and concord of her citizens, for the friendship and brotherhood of [our] kindred nations, which both emerged from the font of the Dniepr, for our unbreakable spiritual and church unity."

Of the two main churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate has more followers, by most accounts. But Kirill's church is the one that is recognized as having full canonical standing in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Nationalist-minded Ukrainians have sought to bring a new element into the equation. They are seeking the support of the Istanbul Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church, and its ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, to balance the centuries-old influence of Moscow.