Pope John Paul's recent visit to Ukraine, his fourth to a predominantly Orthodox country, has brought a warning from a senior Russian Orthodox Church official that Orthodox-Roman Catholic ties are now in a "dead-end situation."

The visit by Pope John Paul II to Ukraine from June 23 to 27 at the invitation of the country's president and Catholic leaders, was marked by a simmering controversy between Ukraine's biggest Orthodox church and the Vatican about the role of the Catholic Church in traditionally Orthodox lands.

One of the main points at issue is the role in Ukraine of the five million-strong Greek Catholic Church, which was banned by the Soviet authorities for 44 years and regained its legal status in 1990.

The revival of the church—which follows Eastern liturgy but is loyal to the Pope—has prompted disputes over church property. Its buildings had been confiscated by the state authorities under communism and in many cases were handed over to the Orthodox. Since 1990, more than 1000 of these places of worship have been returned to the revived Greek Catholic Church.

During his trip the Pope called on Catholics in Ukraine to "build appropriate forms of fraternal co-operation" with Orthodox Christians, who make up three-fifths of Ukraine's population of 50 million.

However, in what was widely interpreted as a calculated snub to the 81-year old pontiff, Metropolitan Vladimir, the leader of Ukraine's biggest Orthodox church,left the country during the papal visit.

According to Hilarion Alfeyev, an official at the Moscow Patriarchate's department of external church relations, "one thing is clear—this visit won't improve relations between us."

Alfeyev said the Pope's visit to Ukraine would "certainly not bring closer" a possible papal visit to Moscow, a long held desire of the Pope.

Alfeyev also expressed irritation about the fact that the leaders of two breakaway Orthodox churches in Ukraine attended a meeting with Pope John Paul in Kiev organized by the Ukrainian Council of Churches. He said the Vatican "knows it will forfeit relations with canonical churches if it builds ties with non-canonical entities"—a reference to the breakaway churches.

Alfeyev's comments were reinforced by the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II, who told British journalists in Moscow last week that Pope John Paul had been "stirring up tension" during his visit to Ukraine. The papal visit "only served to exacerbate the harassment of the Orthodox which takes place in that region," Patriarch Alexei said, according to the Guardian newspaper in London.

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Earlier, at the beginning of Pope John Paul's visit to Ukraine, Alexei said that he hoped the papal trip would not "ultimately close the door to improvement in our relations. But that can happen too."

In particular, the patriarch highlighted proselytism—the seeking of converts in traditional Orthodox regions—as a barrier to any meeting, saying that "today there is proselytism right across Russia, in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan."

However, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, rejected suggestions that the papal visit to Ukraine would damage inter-church relations.

"The Holy Father went out of his way not to create any problems, just as he did in Romania, Georgia and Greece," Cassidy said. "There seems to be something fundamentally wrong when the head of a church can't visit another church just because they haven't resolved all their differences. … In other countries, papal visits have been looked on as great and joyful events, in which all churches could come together. … I think it would have helped the situation if the Pope could have met the person we recognize as the Orthodox Church's canonical head. But it seems pressure from Moscow proved decisive."

On his arrival, the Pope said he had come to Ukraine as a "pilgrim of peace and brotherhood" with no "intention of proselytizing," and counted on a friendly welcome from Christians and non-Christians "whose hearts are open to dialogue and co-operation."

The view that the Pope's visit to Ukraine would damage inter-church relations was also challenged by an Orthodox theologian from Romania, who said the Pope's visit to his country in May 1999 had generated "positive changes" in inter-church ties.

"The Russian Orthodox Church appears intent on recreating the Byzantine Empire," said Nicu Dumitrascu, a professor from Romania's Cluj University.

"Although we know we must stay together, we practice another kind of Orthodoxy here, and we don't understand why the Moscow Patriarchate still seeks to control the Orthodox Church in Ukraine."

The fragility of Orthodox-Catholic relations in Russia was illustrated by an exchange in Moscow just days before the papal trip to Ukraine. Speaking at a press conference, the chairman of the Roman Catholic bishops' conference of Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, responded to the charges of proselytism by saying that the Catholic Church was called to serve both Roman Catholics and "those who want to become" Catholic.

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At the same press conference, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz hinted that Russia's Roman Catholic communities might simply issue their own invitation to the pontiff to visit Russia, disregarding the objections of the Moscow Patriarchate.

In an angry statement, the spokesperson of the patriarchate's department of external relations, Viktor Malukhin, said that he would "prefer to consider the idea of inviting the pope. … without the Russian Orthodox Church's consent to be a mistake."

"Otherwise, we would have to consider it as an interference in our internal affairs and a blatant pressure not only on ecclesial but also on secular authorities, whose position regarding the possibility of a papal visit to Moscow is well known," Malukhin said.

When he traveled to Rome last year, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin—citing the objections of the Russian Orthodox Church—failed to renew a standing invitation for the Catholic leader to visit Russia.

Related Elsewhere

Media around the world have covered the Pope's Ukraine visit including The Moscow Times, Time, CBC, BBC, The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and New York Times.

For more related articles, see Yahoo full coverage on Pope John Paul II and Ukraine.

Previous Christianity Today articles on Pope John Paul II's recent visits include:

In Greece and Syria, Pope John Paul II Tries to Heal Ancient Wounds | But many Orthodox Christians and Muslims are suspicious and hostile to visit. (May 9, 2001)

Leading Catholic Priest Urges Pope to Delay Controversial Visit to Greece | Opposition reportedly growing in Orthodox Church, government. (April 6, 2001)