The Pope flew to Ukraine yesterday at the start of a five-day visit which has already ignited a furious row with the Russian Orthodox Church and provoked denunciations of the Vatican of a type seldom heard outside Northern Ireland.
Aleksei II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church to which most Ukrainians give allegiance, says there is "a war" between Orthodox and Catholics in Ukraine. He denounced the Pope's visit as support for Catholics who, "at the crest of barbaric nationalism in the late Eighties and early Nineties, destroyed Orthodox dioceses".
As a Pole, who for many years lived near the border with Ukraine, the Pope knows he is entering one of the great religious, ethnic and political battlegrounds of Europe. His visit is being greeted with wild enthusiasm by five million Greek Catholics in western Ukraine whose Church was banned under the Soviet Union.
It is more than just a religious dispute. "Unfortunately, for many in Russia, to be Orthodox means to be anti-Catholic, just as in western Ukraine to be Catholic means to be anti-Russian," Andrei Zubov, an instructor at the Orthodox Theological Institute of John the Divine, said.
The Vatican is playing down its differences with the Orthodox Church. It says that in Lviv, the unofficial capital of western Ukraine, there are now only two outstanding disputes over church property claimed by both Catholics and Orthodox. But for the Patriarch Aleksei II in Moscow the wounds are still raw. He says his priests have been "hounded" and their parishioners abused.
Such differences were kept in the background yesterday in Kiev, where the Pope was due to visit the Greek Catholic Church of St Michael.
The Pope is in Ukraine at the invitation of President Leonid Kuchma, whose regime is notoriously corrupt. Mr Kuchma's rule was shaken last year when a bodyguard secretly recorded him discussing ways of getting rid of Georgy Gongadze, a freelance journalist, whose headless body was found in a wood north of Kiev last November.
The Vatican has been trying to steer a course away from the whirlpools of Ukrainian politics, but without much success. Religion and politics are both highly factionalised. Ukraine has three Orthodox churches, the largest of which, with the support of 9,000 parishes, is loyal to the Russian Patriarch of Moscow. It is this which has denounced the Pope's visit. Two smaller Orthodox Churches, both of more nationalist bent, have welcomed the Pontiff's presence.
Despite the jeremiads, demonstrations against the Pope's visit have not been large. Last week only some 5,000 turned out to protest and opinion polls show only 4 to 6 per cent of Ukrainians wish the Pope had not come. Many support his presence because they feel Europe often ignores Ukraine.
Feelings will be much stronger when the Pope travels to Lviv in western Ukraine tomorrow. This is the heartland of the Greek Catholics, who were established under Polish auspices in 1596. Orthodox in worship, ritual and traditions – its priests can be married – it recognises the Pope's spiritual authority.
Banned by Stalin in 1944, its surviving priests worked underground. They only re-emerged into the open in the last years of the Soviet Union.
Andrij Nahirnyak, a priest helping organise the Pope's visit, said there might now be 2,500 Greek Catholic priests in Ukraine compared to 100 20 years ago. The Pope will recognise the price the Church paid during its years of persecution by beatifying 27 martyrs killed during Soviet times and the Nazi occupation.Reuse content