The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is in Ukraine for a visit he says is spiritual and not political. He made the statement in Kyiv, where Ukrainians and Russians trace the origins of their common Christian faith. However, some Ukrainians are skeptical of the Patriarch's intentions.
The patriarch began his visit to Ukraine with a church service at the base of a monument to the ancient Kyivan Prince to whom Kirill attributes the name he had before entering the priesthood.
Russians call that Prince, Vladimir. Ukrainians refer to him as Volodymyr.
More than 1,000 years ago, that ruler spread Christian Orthodoxy from the seat of his empire in Kyiv on the Dnieper River to regions that became known centuries later as Ukraine and Russia. By the 20th century, all of Ukraine came under Russian domination.
Mindful of the political sensitivities between both nations, Patriarch Kirill said his visit to Ukraine would focus on spiritual, not political issues.
Kirill says Orthodox faithful will pray together with Christian saints for the blessing and prosperity of Ukraine, for peace and agreement among its citizens, for friendship and brotherhood of fraternal peoples who came from the common baptismal waters of the Dnieper River, and for permanent spiritual and church unity.
Hundreds of protesters in Kyiv demonstrated the lack of such unity with shouts of "Out with the Muscovite Pope." Senior Ukrainian Church leaders have also voiced misgivings about Kirill's visit.
While acknowledging the Patriarch's right to pray with Orthodox Ukrainians who recognize his authority, Kyiv's Orthodox Patriarch Filaret recently said Kirill pursued the Kremlin's political line toward Ukraine in his previous capacity as foreign relations director of the Russian Orthodox Church. Filaret voices the concern of many in Ukraine who believe the Kremlin seeks to re-integrate that country into Russia.
Millions of Ukrainians recognize Filaret as the Patriarch of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Its spokesman, Bishop Yevstratiy, told VOA the political and spiritual independence of Ukraine from Russia does not mean the Orthodox of both countries cannot cooperate.
The Bishop says the languages and cultures of Ukraine and Russia are close, but nonetheless, their peoples are different, no less than two adult brothers who want their own lives and families, and to be free of interference. He notes that churches, like brothers, should help one another and live as good neighbors.
Parts of Western Ukraine adopted Catholicism in the late 16th century. The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, told the Liviy Bereh, or Left Bank, newspaper it is no secret that Russia seeks to maintain control over Ukraine. The Cardinal notes the Ukrainian nation wants to preserve its identity and to trade its intellectual and other gifts as an equal with the Russian nation.
The authority of the Russian Patriarch is widely recognized in Eastern Ukraine, some parts of which have been ruled by Russia for more than three centuries. Moscow's church leader in Ukraine, Kyiv Metropolitan Volodymyr, told Kirill he would pray that the people of both countries live in peace, prosperity and mutual understanding.
Both church leaders referred to the Holy Land to underscore the meaning Kyiv has for peoples who trace their Christian faith to the city. The Patriarch said it may be considered like the Jerusalem of Russians and Ukrainians, and the Metropolitan said the Dnieper was like the Jordan River, in which Jesus was baptized.
Kirill and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who supports an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, laid a wreath to victims of the Holodomor, an artificial famine perpetrated by the Kremlin in the early 1930s. Ukrainians see the famine as a genocide that nearly destroyed their nation. Russians claim it was a political act aimed at eliminating peasant resistance to land collectivization throughout the former Soviet Union.