Pope John Paul II paid tribute yesterday at the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev where the Nazis murdered tens of thousands of Jews in 1941 – one of the worst massacres of the Holocaust. The Pope had earlier referred to "the murderous frenzy" of the Germans towards the Jews of Ukraine.
Standing by the trees that have grown on the sides of the hollows where the killings took place, the pontiff, leaning heavily on his cane and with his left hand trembling, prayed for those killed. He read aloud from De Profundis, a Catholic prayer for the dead.
Between 29 and 31 September 1941 German soldiers rounded up Kiev's Jewish population and marched them through the streets to Babi Yar. An estimated 34,000 Jews were killed in 72 hours. The Nazis used the site as a concentration camp between 1941 and 1943 and an estimated 100,000 people – including Jews and partisans – were killed.
The Chief Rabbi of Kiev, Yaakov Dov Bleich, stood beside the Pope as he prayed and handed him a statement that read: "Babi Yar is still a name which inspires awe and disgust as one of the prime symbols of evil and cruelty." Towards the end of the war the Nazis had the bodies at Babi Yar exhumed and burnt.
The Pope travelled from Kiev to Lviv in western Ukraine where the streets were lined with people long before his arrival. He was assured of a bigger welcome there than in Kiev where his presence was denounced by the main branch of the Orthodox Church, which owes allegiance to the Patriarch in Moscow.
Vatican officials may have been surprised by the cold shoulder shown them by most of the Orthodox leaders in Kiev. The Pope did not visit St Sophia's Cathedral or the Caves Monastery, the two most famous religious sites in Kiev, which are under Orthodox control.
The anger of the Orthodox hierarchy would also explain why fewer people than expected turned up at the two outdoor Masses over which the Pope presided. Most of the Catholics in Ukraine live in the west of the country and belong to the Greek Catholic Church.
The Ukrainian government's heavy-handed security may also have contributed to the poor turn-out. President Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian leader, who has been using the papal visit to boost his own prestige and legitimacy, was clearly eager to make sure that nothing marred the visit.
At one point spectators were told not to throw flowers or stand on balconies to wave to the Pope because this might be misinterpreted by the thousands of police lining the streets. Ukrainian security officials were also reported to have contemplated banning all raincoats except those made of clear plastic – despite the driving rain – on the basis that somebody might be able to conceal a weapon.
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