The Pope urges warring Ukrainian churches to unite

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The Independent Online

Pope John Paul II urged Catholics and Orthodox Christians to unite yesterday during his visit to Ukraine, but the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow will be angered by the welcome given to the Pope by a rebel Orthodox leader.

The Pope addressed about 30,000 worshippers who attended Mass at Chayka airport on the outskirts of Kiev. Because of rain and unprecedented security precautions, the number was far lower than the 350,000 who had been expected to attend.

The Russian Orthodox hierarchy, which has the allegiance of two-thirds of Ukrainian Christians, had already denounced the Pope's five-day visit as an invasion of Orthodox territory. It is likely to be infuriated by the welcome given to the Pope yesterday by Patriarch Filaret, the leader of a breakaway section of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

In a rancorous dispute in the 1990s, Patriarch Filaret split from Moscow and is followed by about a quarter of Orthodox believers in Ukraine. "I am very glad that you came to our country with kindness," Patriarch Filaret told the Pope during a meeting of church leaders.

Papal officials seem surprised by the furious denunciations of the visit coming from Aleksei II, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in Moscow. He has repeatedly expressed his bitterness at the way in which the leaders of the Greek Catholic church in western Ukraine have occupied disputed churches. These were lost when the Greek Catholics were banned in 1946.

The Ukrainian government, which believes the visit will give it some much-need legitimacy, has provided the Pope with a high degree of security. The centre of Kiev has been cordoned off and traffic denied access. "It's so stupid and couldn't happen in another country," said one frustrated driver. "They didn't do this even when President Clinton was visiting."

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