“Kiev is our common Jerusalem” – Patriarch Kirill

The head of Russia’s Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill has called for unity in Ukraine and said his ten-day visit there is that of a palmer with no politics on his mind – which some in Ukraine doubt.

The Russian cleric started his visit to Ukraine with conducting a service at the monument to Prince Vladimir the Baptizer at Vladimirskaya Gorka Park in Kiev.

After the service, Patriarch Kirill stressed that it is important for both Russian and Ukrainians to be spiritually united in faith, adding that in this unity “it is our strength, the basis of our resistance to all temptations and dividedness of the world.”

Speaking to the media prior to the visit, he insisted that he is going to Kiev as a pilgrim in order to “touch the holy shrines”.

It was Prince Vladimir whose undertaking led to the spread of Orthodox faith on the territories which include present-day Russia and Ukraine.

“Kiev is our common Jerusalem, and it is Kiev that the Russian Orthodox faith came from,” Patriarch Kirill said. “We will pray for the prosperity of Ukraine, for peace and consent among its citizens.”

Meanwhile, Filaret – the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchy, which is not recognized by the world Orthodox community – claims that Patriarch Kirill has come to Ukraine with not only spiritual matters on his mind, but also “political purposes”.

United by faith, divided by politics

Like Russia, Ukraine is a predominantly Orthodox country, but since the end of the Soviet Union the church there broke away to go along with the country’s new political independence.

Currently, Ukraine’s religious landscape is fractured into three separate Orthodox Church branches: the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy, the major one in the country; the afore mentioned Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchy formed in 1992 and headed by Filaret; and the Ukraine Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which does not have much influence in the country.

Some believe Kirill’s visit to Kiev is aimed at increasing Russian influence in Ukraine – claims denied by the Russian Orthodox Church.

On his first day of the visit the Russian Patriarch met shortly with the Ukrainian leader. After the meeting Patriarch Kirill and President Yushchenko visited a monument to the victims of the mass famine in the early 1930s. Patriarch Kirill has called for all believers to pray that the tragedy is never repeated again.

President Yushchenko is pushing for the creation of a United Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which would be independent from the Moscow Patriarchy – an important step in Ukraine’s quest for independence from Russia. Yushchenko filed a request with the Constantinople Patriarchy for Kiev to be granted autocephaly, but has not received an answer.

Ukraine’s mixed reactions

Despite efforts made by the Russian Orthodox Church to decrease tensions, Patriarch Kirill’s ten-day trip is not expected to be cloudless.

While more than 1,000 people gathered for his service at Vladimirskaya Gorka, the first day of his stay has also seen a provocation.

On his way from the service the Patriarch and believers were met by members of Ukrainian nationalist group UNA-UNSO.

The group activists were crying out loud that Patriarch Kirill is a “colonizer” and that he should return to Moscow.

Apart from Kiev, the Russian Patriarch will visit Donetsk and seven other Ukrainian cities. It is expected that the receptions he is going to receive in east and west Ukraine are likely to be very different – with a much warmer welcome expected from the Russian-speaking east.

However, Vsevolod Loskutov of the Russian Embassy in Ukraine has said he’s sure the incident in Kiev is not a sign of the overall attitude towards Patriarch Kirill.

“The Patriarch is greeted very warmly in Ukraine,” he said. “I have seen it at the airport and here at Vladimirskaya Gorka.”