e-mail us
Confusion in Ukraine to greet papal visit

NCR Staff
Rome/Kiev and L’viv, Ukraine

As Pope John Paul II arrives in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic of 49 million, he finds himself walking into a lion’s den of conflicting religious and political impulses, with accusations of hostile ecclesiastical takeovers, greed, murder and sexual peccadilloes all adding flavor to the mix.

To call the situation today in Ukraine “confused” would be a bit like calling Bill Gates “comfortable” or Michael Jordan “talented” -- in other words, an exercise in understatement

The pope was scheduled to touch down June 23 for a five-day visit to the Ukrainian cities of Kiev and L’viv, his 94th trip outside Italy. Analysts say his visit and its outcome could have important implications for the political and religious future of the Ukraine.

After recent voyages to Romania and Greece, this is the latest foray by John Paul into a predominantly Orthodox nation. Unlike those other two destinations, where Catholicism forms a tiny minority, Ukraine is a religious patchwork where relations between Catholics and Orthodox have historically been more troubled than anywhere else in the world.

The Greek Catholic church, which uses Orthodox rituals but is loyal to Rome, has five million followers, while the Latin Rite Roman Catholics number some one million, including descendants of Polish settlers. Both are concentrated in the western half of the country.

Meanwhile the Orthodox are badly divided. The largest group is the Ukrainian Orthodox church-Moscow patriarchate, tied to the patriarch of Moscow, Alexei II. A new Ukranian Orthodox church-Kiev patriarchate is a breakaway faction led by a rebel patriarch named Filaret, and the still smaller Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox church dates from a brief period of Ukrainian independence.

Membership is difficult to estimate, but according to government statistics the Moscow patriarchate has 9,000 parishes, while the Kiev patriarchate has 3,000 and the autocephalous church 1,000.

During the 40-plus years of Soviet rule, Greek Catholics were forcibly integrated into Orthodoxy, since the Soviets did not want a Western beachhead in their own backyard. Persecutions were frequently intense. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Greek Catholics emerged from the underground and demanded restitution of their churches, leading to intense property disputes that sometimes broke into street violence.

Orthodox leaders believe that by encouraging a renaissance in the Greek Catholic church, the Vatican is trying to make inroads in traditionally Orthodox territory, in essence accusing it of predatory corporate behavior. It is that suspicion that has led Alexei II to bitterly oppose John Paul’s trip, insisting as recently as June 4 that “there is a Greek-Catholic war ... against Orthodox believers in Ukraine.”

Yet on the eve of John Paul’s arrival, a government official said the property disputes are mostly a thing of the past. At the moment, he said, he knows of only two parishes whose ownership is contested between Catholics and Orthodox.

According to most analysts, Alexei’s true concern is not so much a “war” over property, but the long-term potential for erosion in Ukraine, which for decades has supplied almost half the revenue and half the vocations for the entire Russian Orthodox church.

With some 80 million members, Russian Orthodoxy is the largest branch of the Orthodox church in the world and enjoys a de facto leadership role that would be threatened if Catholics and other Christian groups were to gain significant chunks of market share in Ukraine.

Moreover, Alexei is worried that a meeting with John Paul could legitimize the other two branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, especially the faction led by Filaret, one of the more colorful figures in the Orthodox world.

In 1990, Filaret received the second highest number of votes in the Russian Orthodox Synod to become the new patriarch of Moscow. After losing to Alexei II, Filaret promptly declared himself the head of an independent Orthodox church, claiming that since Ukraine was now independent, its church should be too.

Moscow in turn excommunicated Filaret, pointing to charges that he had fathered three children with a woman who was, in effect, his common-law wife. Observers say the charge of sexual misbehavior was somewhat disingenuous, since the rumor was well known before the vote in 1990 but became an issue only after Filaret walked out.

As NCR went to press, John Paul was scheduled to meet a group of Ukrainian religious leaders, including Filaret, during an ecumenical session. Alexei II, meanwhile, has charged that Filaret intends to link up with other Orthodox splinter groups around the world to form a rival Orthodox communion.

The political situation is, if anything, even more chaotic and acrimonious. President Leonid Kuchma ousted popular Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko April 26. Yushchenko’s economic reforms had threatened the oligarchs who control the country’s oil pipelines and who form Kuchma’s base of support.

Kuchma has recently been reverting to Cold War-style anti-Western rhetoric, creating fears that Ukraine may join a new alliance between Russia and Belorussia and thus reconstitute the heart of the old Soviet empire.

Meanwhile, Kuchma is reeling in the wake of disclosure of hundreds of hours of recordings of conversations in his office made by a former security official, who has since been given asylum in the United States.

On the tapes, Kuchma can be heard calling for retribution against a journalist, Georgy Gongadze, who had exposed government corruption. Not long after that remark, the journalist’s corpse was found with his head cut off and hands burned with acid. Many Ukrainians believe Kuchma ordered the murder.

Kuchma suggested in a recent interview on “60 Minutes” that the tapes had been electronically altered. His son-in-law has alleged that the tapes are a CIA plant.

Analysts say John Paul’s visit thus comes at a critical moment. If it goes well, it could revive Ukraine’s drift into the Western political orbit. If not, it could further destabilize a nation whose geographic location on the western flank of Russia makes it strategically critical.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001