The June 23-27 visit of Pope John Paul II to predominantly Orthodox Christian Ukraine was marred by controversy. On the one hand, there were no much-feared mass protests of Orthodox believers of the Moscow Patriarchate against Roman Catholicism; on the other, the visit failed as a step toward a historical reconciliation between Roman popes and Muscovite patriarchs, contrary to John Paul’s hopes. The attendance at the pope’s masses was somewhat lower than expected, due not to indifference or hostility, but rather to the excessive zeal of law enforcement in “ensuring peace and order” during the visit. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, weakened by recent political scandals, tried to sell the pope’s visit at home and internationally as confirmation of his political legitimacy and European aspirations.
John Paul–as the head of the Vatican “state”–came to Ukraine at Kuchma’s invitation. The religious content of the event was officially downplayed. It could not be otherwise, as the attitude of Moscow Patriarchate, which controls over half of Ukraine’s Christian parishes, to the Church of Rome remains cool if not hostile. The Russian church has not forgiven the Vatican for the seizure of church property by Greek Catholics (Catholics of the Eastern Rite) in Western Ukraine in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Greek Catholics say that they took back only what Stalin took from them in the late 1940s, when the Greek Catholic Church was forbidden and its property confiscated and given to the Orthodox Church. The Moscow Patriarchate is jealous of the recently observed rapprochement between Catholics and the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches rival to Moscow, the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Autocephalous Church. Moscow church leaders also accuse the Vatican of attempts at proselytizing in Western Ukraine–the land which the Moscow Patriarchate considers to be historically its own.
The pope’s visit to Ukraine is evidence enough that Moscow Patriarch Aleksy II is yet not ready for reconciliation with Rome. The Moscow Patriarchate officially asked the pope not to come to Ukraine. When the Vatican ignored this request, Moscow priests launched an antipapal campaign across Ukraine. In the leaflets, distributed by the Moscow Patriarchate and NGOs connected to it, and in public, the pope was branded “the forerunner of anti-Christ.” Thousands of people participated in the protests. On June 21, some 7,000-10,000 followers of Moscow Patriarchate participated in an antipapal demonstration in Kyiv. Yet on the eve of Pope’s arrival, the Moscow church called on its followers to abstain from protests. This call had its desired effect: There were no violations of public order during the pope’s visit. Meanwhile, the head of Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Volodymyr, demonstratively left Kyiv. The Moscow Patriarchate was not represented at the pope’s meeting with leaders of Ukraine’s religious congregations in Kyiv. Patriarch Filaret of Kyiv Patriarchate (excommunicated by Aleksy II in the early 1990s) and representatives of Autocephalous Church were.
This hostility had an adverse effect: The Ukrainian police, afraid of possible disorders, resorted to unprecedented precautions. While the pope was in Kyiv on June 23-25, traffic in the downtown was disrupted by police cordons; routes of the papal procession were kept secret even from the policemen who packed the streets; incidents of people being blocked in underground passages and metro stations were reported; those living in the streets where the pope was expected to pass were forbidden to open windows. As a result, the pope was met by almost empty Kyiv streets. Internal Affairs Minister Ihor Smirnov said that the Vatican had requested enhanced security. Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls was diplomatic, saying that the police worked well, yet privately made it clear that Vatican was not pleased with the extremes to which the police went.
Strict security coupled with rainy weather lowered the attendance of two papal masses in Orthodox Kyiv on June 24-25 to 180,000 against the expected 300,000-400,000. In the predominantly Catholic Lviv on June 26-27, some two million people assembled, a significant portion of whom came from neighboring Poland. In Kyiv, Pope John Paul II asked Orthodox believers forgiveness for the past sins of Catholics. He praised Ukraine’s spirit “despite the temptations of lawlessness and corruption,” which seems to go unnoticed by state-controlled media and the president, and recalled that Ukraine belongs to Europe, a comment the government applauded by.
For his part, Kuchma presented the pope’s visit as proof and confirmation of Ukraine’s European identity, implying (and essentially underscoring) his own contribution to that identity.” Ukrainian observers agree that the visit did strengthen Kuchma’s stature at home after the tape scandal late last year, when Kuchma was accused of removing an opposition journalist and other undemocratic practices. And while the visit did not aggravate the rift between Ukraine’s rival Orthodox congregations, it did show that this differences between the two churches is for the time being unsurpassable (Ukrainian media, June 23-27).
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