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Catholic World News News Feature

Ukrainian Orthodox confllicts deepen April 06, 2005

Ukrainian Orthodox officials allied with the Moscow patriarchate staged a public demonstration in Kiev on April 6, to protest what they see as government interference in Orthodox Church affairs.

The Ukrainian Orthodox leaders organized a march through Kiev, past the presidential palace and parliament buildings, in response to reports that the government may government may hand over control of the renowned Monastery of the Caves to another, independent Orthodox group.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been split into competing groups in recent decades. After years of alliance with the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, a Ukrainian Church leader, Metropolitan Filaret, broke away to set up the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate. That group now competes with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate for supremacy. A third, smaller, group, the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, also commands the allegiance of some believers.

In the country's recent presidential elections, the Moscow patriarchate bitterly opposed the eventual winner, Viktor Yushchenko, whose ascent to power was welcomed by other religious groups in Ukraine. Now the Orthodox who remain faithful to Moscow charge that President Yushchenko is giving political preference to the Kiev patriarchate.

The problems of the Moscow patriarchate were compounded when a spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople-- the acknowledged "first among equals" of the Orthodox world-- denied Moscow's claim that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate is the only legitimate canonical body in Ukraine.

Russian Orthodox leaders, along with the hierarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, have bitterly protested the public statement by Archbishop Vsevolod, the US-based representative of Constantinople that other Orthodox bodies in Ukraine may have canonical standing. Characterizing the statement as "outrageous" and "inexplicable," they have demanded a retraction and apology from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. To date, the Patriarch of Constantinople has not responded.

For President Yushchenko, the deep divisions among Orthodox believers pose a serious dilemma. After decades of unquestioned pre-eminence, and unswerving allegiance to Russian leadership, the Moscow patriarchate is now challenged by an Orthodox movement that supports Ukrainian independence. While he has promised to remain impartial in religious disputes, Yushchenko may be forced to settle quarrels over the ownership of Orthodox Church properties, such as the Monastery of the Caves.

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