Police beat mourners at patriarch's burial

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The Independent Online
Kiev - Riot police beat mourners, including priests in robes and elderly women, at the improvised burial of an Orthodox patriarch outside a cathedral.

About 1,000 mourners accompanied by nationalists wearing uniforms had scuffled briefly with police on Tuesday before being allowed to gather outside St Sofia Cathedral - one of the most hallowed places in the world to the Orthodox religion.

Refused permission by the authorities to bury Patriarch Volodymyr inside, they smashed the asphalt pavement outside and dug an improvised grave. But as they were heaping dirt on the cloth-covered coffin, riot police poured into the square, firing tear gas and striking worshippers with truncheons.

Volodymyr, who spent 19 years in Soviet labour camps, headed the breakaway branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which split from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1992 after Ukraine's independence from Soviet rule. The director of St Sofia said burial in the grounds required government permission.

A dispute over whether to bury Volodymyr in the cathedral had swelled into a political row, with liberal politicians pressing President Leonid Kuchma's government to agree and senior ministers holding an emergency meeting. "Breaking up a funeral march is barbaric," Vyacheslav Chornovil of the nationalist Rukh party said.

Ministers meeting again yesterday were under pressure to determine who had ordered the charge. They also had to decide what was to be done with the patriarch's body. His coffin was buried late on Tuesday evening in the makeshift grave after negotiations between ministers and senior clergy.

"An extremely complicated decision is needed here," Deputy Prime Minister Roman Shpek said. "The main thing is for this to end in reconciliation."

After the beatings, hundreds of police ringed the square and priests resumed the interrupted funeral service while about 500 worshippers stood in drizzle.

Despite backing from Ukraine's post-independence leaders, the church has failed to win recognition from the world Orthodox hierachy. Moscow has also retained the allegiance of most of Ukraine's 35 million Orthodox faithful.