Russian Orthodox Patriarch begins contentious visit to Ukraine

By Ecumenical News International
July 28, 2009

A 10-day trip to Ukraine by Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church is to include visits to a monument to victims of the Stalin-era famine, a liturgy expected to draw thousands to the tense, scenic Crimean peninsula - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.

The visit that starts on 27 July 2009 will also include a pilgrimage to Pochaev, one of the most important monasteries in the Orthodox church, located in the heart of western Ukraine, for centuries a locus of religious disputes.

The schedule of Kirill's Ukraine journey, his first to the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy since his enthronement in February, is posted on the patriarchate's official web site and is already serving as fodder for media and bloggers to discuss its political subtext. The Patriarch and a top aide, however, said this week the visit is pastoral and its aims are spiritual.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine have engaged in an uneasy dance as the closest of neighbours divided by divergent world views and complex religious rifts. These include breakaway Orthodox groups and a centuries-long Orthodox-Catholic divide over Christians in western Ukraine who follow the Byzantine rite but are loyal to the church of Rome.

"I am leaving for Ukraine with a good feeling," Kirill told journalists from Ukraine at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow on 23 July. "I know, of course, of the difficulties that exist in ecclesiastical and public life, but visiting Kiev, the mother of Russian cities, the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, and our great holy places, always gives a strong charge of spiritual energy."

On the first day of his visit, the Synod of Bishops of the entire Russian Orthodox Church will meet at the Kiev monastery. Later that day, Kirill will visit a monument to the famine that Ukrainians call Holodomor and Ukraine's government says was an ethnic genocide against its people lead by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev refused to attend the dedication of the monument in 2008. He said it was being wrongly used against Russia because all Soviet people, and not only Ukrainians, suffered under Stalin.

"It is not my goal to give political recipes, or to carry out political analysis: my task as Patriarch is, praying together with the people, to ponder with them our common spiritual present and future," Kirill told the Ukrainian journalists.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate accounts for more than a third of the Russian Orthodox Church, but calls are growing for its autocephaly, or independence. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has said he would like to see his country's Orthodox churches united under the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, from which Orthodoxy came to Kievan Rus.

Still, Vladimir Legoyda, chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate's synodal information department, told Govorit Moskva, a Moscow radio station that "the Patriarch has repeatedly underscored that Kiev is the southern capital of Russian Orthodoxy. We speak of a unified spiritual expanse that is much deeper and more enduring than political space."

Kirill's forthcoming stop in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave to Ukraine, has received special coverage due to motorcyclists who are part of a new Russian Orthodox missionary effort under Kirill. The Russian Patriarch will preside at a liturgy at a historic Orthodox site near Sevastopol on 2 August.

The bikers were seen off by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and rode down for a bike festival near Sevastopol earlier this month in a gesture seen as supporting the Russian Orthodox Church. A scandal erupted, however, when photographs of a biker driving a topless young woman on his motorcycle, which was decorated with an icon banner depicting Jesus, were widely circulated.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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