As Pope John Paul II prepares to go to Ukraine tomorrow the Russian Orthodox Church, to which most Ukrainian Christians pay allegiance, has furiously denounced his visit as doing nothing but harm.
"The Pope's trip will only perpetuate a situation of injustice, pain and suffering," says Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. "It will only contribute to the deterioration of relations between the two churches." The venom with which the Russian Orthodox hierarchy is criticising the Pontiff's five-day visit is rooted in the bitter religious conflict between the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches which has raged in western Ukraine since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The Pope is expected to preach to some three million people during his visits on 23–27 June to Kiev and Lviv. Workmen in Lviv have been working desperately to finish redecorating St George's Cathedral and the episcopal residence where the Pope will stay.
In Soviet times the Greek Catholic Church, strong in western Ukraine, was banned. Its churches were demolished, used for other purposes or handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church. Since 1991 the Greek Catholics, of whom there are some five million, have been taking their churches back. Moscow says its priests have been beaten and its parishioners driven from their churches.
The Pope has already discovered that his most anodyne remark is likely to elicit an angry response from the Russian Orthodox. This week he told thousands of pilgrims in St Peter's Square in Rome that he hoped his visit would enable Ukrainians to acquire a new faith. "The Ukrainian people are firm in their traditional faith and do not need an outside agency to act as a catalyst for their spiritual revival," snapped back a Russian Orthodox spokesman in Moscow.
The visit by John Paul II, the first by a pope to Ukraine, will reinforce the sense of identity of the Greek Catholic Church, which was forced to lead an underground existence until 10 years ago. It has also been the backbone of Ukrainian nationalism. The Greek Catholic Church is Orthodox in its form of worship and rituals, but has recognised the Pope as its leader since 1596.
The Pope is to beatify 27 martyrs killed by the Soviets or the Nazis. They include Yakym Senkivsky, a priest who was reputedly boiled to death in a cauldron by Soviet secret police in 1941. Another priest to be beatified is Emilian Kovch, who died in a Nazi concentration camp at Majdanek in Poland in 1944 after being arrested for helping Jews.
Greek Catholics also said they hoped the Pope would start the process of making Archbishop Theodor Romza, reputedly poisoned in hospital on Stalin's orders in 1947, into a saint.
The arrival of the Pope in Kiev will politically strengthen President Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian leader, who has been on the defensive since the headless body of a journalist called Georgy Gongadze was found in a wood last year. Secret tape-recordings of Mr Kuchma discussing ways of getting rid of Mr Gongadze were made and released by one of his bodyguards.
The presence of the Pope in Kiev will bolster Mr Kuchma's credibility.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies