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Ukraine, Russia Face Off Over Christian Orthodoxy

Top Orthodox Christian leaders gathered in Ukraine's capital this week to mark the 1,020th anniversary of the region's conversion to Christianity. But Russian leaders are viewing the festivities as a politically motivated demonstration of a growing schism between the Ukrainian and Russian churches. As Emma Stickgold reports for the VOA from Moscow, apparent political overtones threatened to cast a pall over the elaborate religious ceremonies.

On the surface it seemed like a routine celebration of Christianity's rich history in the region, as the haunting melodies of traditional Christian chants mixed with scent of incense sent swirling by Orthodox clergy in their customary gold vestments.

But numerous comments and actions preceding the solemn liturgy were viewed by many in Moscow as a clear sign that Ukraine is trying to consolidate its three Orthodox churches into one united church that is no longer under Russian influence.

Orthodox believers in Ukraine and Russia trace their faith to Kyivan Rus, an ancient state that ruled Ukraine and parts of today's Russia, and which adopted Christianity in 988. Over the centuries, Ukrainians and Russians developed separate ethnic identities and languages.

During the Soviet era, the Orthodox patriarch in Moscow had control over Ukraine's Orthodox churches. Many of them continue to recognize the Moscow patriarch, but other Ukrainians are seeking recognition of their own church leader in Kyiv.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko ruffled some feathers Saturday when he asked Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader for about 250 million people worldwide, to bless the creation of a Ukrainian church that would be independent of Russia.

Mr. Yushchenko says he considers Patriarch Bartholomew's visit as recognition of the achievements of Ukrainian Christians and the Ukrainian Church.

The Russian and Ukrainian churches both fall under the purview of the Orthodox Christian church and Patriarch Bartholomew, who arrived last week in Kyiv.

Bartholomew says he came to celebrate a joint mass in favor of unifying all Orthodox believers in Ukraine into one church.

Though his remarks were non-committal, they were seen by many in Ukraine and Russia as supportive of the bid to move away from Russia's jurisdiction. Russian Orthodox leaders downplayed the perceived backing of an independent Ukrainian church.

But President Yushchenko's role in this weekend's ceremonies gave it a political charge that made Moscow uneasy, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials calling recent Ukrainian actions disrespectful towards Russian Orthodox leaders.

The reaction underscored recent political tensions that have emerged surrounding Ukraine's bid to join NATO against Moscow's wishes, and other brewing skirmishes such as the fate of the Russian naval base in Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

Russia Profile magazine editor Andrei Zolotov, whose area of specialty is the Orthodox Church, told VOA that the politicization of this weekends' event was in no way subtle, and that there may be repercussions if the church's fate remains in the political arena.

"So, sooner or later, these issues have to be resolved and the unification of the orthodoxies in Ukraine is very necessary and this is a very, kind of the whole situation is a very painful wound on the body of the Orthodox Church worldwide, but of course the attempt to push these measures - to have an excessive kind of pressure from the government to do this can result not in healing this wound, but in actually exacerbating the problem," said Andrei Zolotov.

But Patriarch Bartholomew said the unity of the church transcends any political or religious objective.