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Page last updated at 10:08 GMT, Monday, 27 July 2009 11:08 UK

Russian patriarch visits Ukraine

By Steven Eke
BBC News

Patriarch Kirill releases a dove at Kiev airport (27 July 2009)
Patriarch Kirill was greeted by hundreds of supporters on arrival

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has begun a visit to neighbouring Ukraine.

He will meet the country's President, Viktor Yushchenko, in Kiev, before travelling to the east of the country.

Like Russia, Ukraine is a predominantly Orthodox country, but the Orthodox Church itself in Ukraine is split.

Some Ukrainian Orthodox believers think Patriarch Kirill's visit is aimed primarily at boosting political Russian influence in their country.

Patriarch Kirill was greeted by hundreds of supporters on arrival at Kiev's airport. A small number of demonstrators waved placards opposing his presence and scuffled with police.

He will later visit the holiest sites in the capital before travelling to the industrial heartlands of eastern Ukraine.

Divisions

What makes this trip so controversial is Patriarch Kirill's vision.

Protester held by policeman at Kiev airport (27 July 2009)
A number of protesters waved placards opposing the patriarch's presence

He is a relative newcomer to the post, having been elected in February.

He has articulated a vision of Orthodoxy's future, in which the Russian Orthodox Church holds the dominant, first position among the scattered branches of Orthodoxy. This makes the visit highly sensitive.

It raises questions of spheres of religious and political influence, which often cross what are the region's relatively new state borders.

After 1991, when Ukraine gained its independence, the Orthodox Church there split. The Moscow Patriarchate still controls the lion's share of parishes. However, the churches under the control of the Kiev Patriarchate attract larger numbers of believers.

Recent studies in Ukraine suggest the Kiev Patriarchate attracts some 14 million believers, as opposed to some nine million visiting churches under the Moscow religious authorities.

Many believers from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate say the Russian-backed church does not support Ukrainian independence.

Furthermore, there are political divisions inside Ukraine.

In Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill will be seen as the head of one big family. But in western Ukraine, nationalist groups have protested against what they say is his treatment of Ukraine as his own country.

President Yushchenko says he wants unity of the Orthodox churches. Moscow arguably wants Church unity on its terms.

The Russian Orthodox Church, after all, has a powerful role at the heart of Russia, aimed both at strengthening the state, and restoring its influence abroad.



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