Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 19

Pope John Paul II has accepted an invitation from President Leonid Kuchma and Ukraine’s Eastern-rite Catholic Episcopate to visit Ukraine. The Vatican’s spokesman, Cardinal Joaquin Navarro-Valls, confirmed on January 23 that the Pope will pay a state and pastoral visit in June to Kyiv and to Lviv, a stronghold in Ukraine of Eastern-rite and of Roman Catholicism. The Vatican’s announcement lays to rest the possibility that the Russian Orthodox Church and its branch, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, could stop the papal visit with their threats of disruption. By contrast, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church are hailing the papal visit and underscoring its importance in terms both of ecumenism and of Ukrainian nation building.

The hierarchies of the Russian Orthodox Church and its branch in Ukraine have been opposed to the reestablishment of Ukraine’s Eastern-rite Catholic Church (popularly known as “Uniate” Church) since 1990. That church has deep roots in regions of western Ukraine which were never part of the Russian Empire and were only incorporated into the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In 1946 the Soviet authorities forcibly dissolved the Uniate Church, transferring all of its parishes and assets to the Russian Orthodox Church. A large part of the Uniate clergy perished in the Gulag, while ordinary followers of that church formed a disproportionately large contingent among political detainees and in the underground churches throughout the Soviet period. The Soviet authorities and the KGB in western Ukraine–as in other areas on the Western fringes of the Soviet Union–backed the Moscow Patriarchate as the church loyal to the Soviet state against the disloyal Uniates and other groups. Among the Ukrainian Orthodox, the most active opponents of Soviet rule rejected the church of Moscow Patriarchate and formed clandestine groups of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

After Ukraine gained its independence, the Uniate church reestablished its three bishoprics in western Ukraine and, by now, some 3,700 parishes throughout Ukraine, and began an uphill effort, which is still in progress, to regain church buildings and other property. The Russian church and its Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate strongly oppose such restitution, equating the efforts with an “instigation to interfaith conflict.” The Moscow Patriarchate takes the position that the Vatican’s support to the rebirth of the Uniate church in Ukraine constitutes “intrusion into the Russian Orthodox Church’s canonical space.”

On January 22, a public statement of the Holy Synod and Assembly of Bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate asked Pope John Paul II to postpone the planned visit to Ukraine indefinitely. It cited two reasons for the demand: first, the “interfaith conflict in western Ukraine;” and, second, the intention of the Pope and of the hierarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyiv Patriarchate to meet during the Pope’s visit. The statement warned: “Should your holiness meet with the UOCKP’s schismatic leaders, upon whom our church has cast its anathema, such a meeting would constitute gross interference into our internal affairs and support for the schismatics…. This would result in a suspension of all relations between our Churches, terminating the era of the Second Vatican Council in Orthodox-Catholic relations.”

Statements of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate are, as a matter of course, cleared with the office of the Patriarch Aleksy II in Moscow on any issue of ecumenical and international significance. The tenor and implications of this statement, however, leave little doubt that it originated with Aleksy. Coincidentally, on January 24, the Patriarch awarded the prize of the Unity of Orthodox Peoples to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus at a special ceremony in Moscow. Using the terms “Orthodox Unity” and “Slavic Unity” interchangeably, Aleksy concluded that “our common religion is the core of the Slavic spirit”–a view that leaves no room for national or religious distinctiveness in Ukraine or Belarus.

On January 23, Bishop Pavlo of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate warned on television that the hierarchy of that church would refuse any meeting with the Pope in Kyiv and that “believers and other people [of that church] are getting together in order to obstruct the Pope’s visit.” The Pope might “like a regular tourist buy a ticket and visit the upper part of Kyiv Lavra monastery” but he must in that case expect to be met by protesters. On the same day, and in stark contrast, Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, as well as the hierarchy of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, announced the intention of those churches to welcome the Pope in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoly Zlenko and Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Zhulynsky are personally involved in the preparations for the Pope’s visit. The government will offer special low fares on public transportation for those wishing to travel to Kyiv or Lviv in order to attend the papal mass (UNIAN, January 22-24; New Channel Television, January 23; see the Monitor, January 10; Fortnight, January 19).

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