Ukraine dispute blocks Vatican, Russian Orthodox meeting – Hilarion

January 13, 2010

By Aidar Buribayev

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Patriarch Kirill in Pochayiv Monastery in Ukraine, 5 Aug 2009/Vitaliy Hrabar

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, would be willing to meet Pope Benedict after disputes with Catholics in Ukraine are resolved, Archbishop Hilarion, the Church’s external relations head, has said.  A meeting with the pope would begin to heal the 1,000 year-old-rift between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, which split in 1054 amid disputes over doctrine and papal authority that remain unresolved.

“This is not an issue of when the meeting will take place, but what will be discussed,” Hilarion told journalists on Tuesay.  He said the patriarch of the 165-million-strong Russian Orthodox Church, whose believers include the majority of Russia’s population as well as millions in neighbouring ex-Soviet countries Ukraine and Belarus, wanted a conflict in western Ukraine over church property to be resolved first.

“The situation in western Ukraine is the primary reason for the blocking of the meeting,” he said.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Eastern Rite Catholics who owe their allegiance to Rome took back some churches that had been confiscated by communist authorities after World War Two and given to the Orthodox.  The Russian Orthodox Church does not demand the churches are returned but wants the Vatican to take “concrete measures” towards improving the situation, Hilarion said, such as helping Orthodox followers who have only Catholic churches nearby.

“As soon as there are positive dynamics (from the Vatican) towards resolving this issue, then we can return to the issue of the pope and patriarch meeting,” Hilarion said.

He did not specify if the patriarch wanted help given only to members of the Russian Orthodox Church or to an independent Orthodox church formed in Ukraine in the 1990s, which rejects Russia’s top clergy despite Kirill’s appeals for unity.

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Procession by Ukraine's independent Orthodox church in Kiev, 28 July 2009/Konstantin Chernichkin

Last year’s election of Kirill brought fresh hope that a historic meeting between pope and patriarch could take place. Relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church were discussed last month when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev briefly met the pope.

Hilarion said the Eastern Rite Catholics took more than 500 churches from the Russian Orthodox, who are the largest autocephalic church amongst the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians.  Until 1946, the churches belonged to the Eastern Rite Catholics, a sizeable minority in western Ukraine who endured hardship under Moscow’s rule until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“We do not argue the fact that these temples belonged to them before 1946 but we categorically disagree with the methods which (they) used to get them back,” Hilarion said.

The dispute over the church buildings is just one sticking point in relations between the Russian church and the Vatican. The Russian church has accused Rome of trying to poach converts following the fall of communism, something the Vatican denies.

Kirill’s predecessor, Patriarch Alexiy, who spearheaded the revival of his church after decades of communist persecution, treated rival religions and churches with suspicion. John Paul hailed from Poland, a traditional enemy of Russia, and his fight against Soviet Communism was interpreted by the Orthodox Church as a crusade against Russia.  German-born Pope Benedict, a theological conservative, is viewed by Orthodox hierarchs as a more welcome partner than his predecessor John Paul II.

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