By Oleg Varfolomeyev
KIEV, Ukraine -- After Romania, Georgia, and Greece, Ukraine will be the fourth European country, where Christian Orthodoxy dominates, to be visited by the Pope during the past few years.
Pope John Paul II's visit to Kiev and Lviv from June 23 to 27 is surrounded by religious controversy and public indifference in a country where Catholics make up a small minority.
Ukraine has two main Christian denominations: Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholic (often known as Greek Catholic or Uniate).
Ukraine's Catholics recognise papal authority but follow many Eastern rituals in their worship.
John Paul once compared the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church to left and right lungs and that for the Church to thrive it must breathe with both.
Most of Ukraine's Catholics live in the western half of the country, especially in Galicia, which was a part of predominately Catholic Poland between 1919 and 1939.
The Pope is expected to preach in an airfield near Kiev before a crowd of 300,000 pilgrims. To prevent terrorism or violence, the government has resorted to unprecedented security precautions.
Over 30,000 policemen will supervise public order. Police distributed leaflets advising people who live on the streets where the Pope is expected to proceed not to open windows or leave their homes.
Not everyone is happy with the Pope's visit. Over the past several months, Orthodox priests of the Moscow Patriarchate -- the largest Orthodox group in Ukraine -- have organised numerous protests against the papal visit across Ukraine involving thousands of people.
At the most recent on 21 June, about 3,000 Orthodox believers marched through Kiev streets, bearing Orthodox icons, crosses, and anti-papal slogans.
Two smaller Orthodox congregations, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church and the Kiev Patriarchate, which are separated from the church in Moscow, welcome the Pope.
They view him as an ally against the domination of the Moscow Patriarchate.
"I don't think he should come here," says Ivan, 69, a pensioner from the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, who claims to be an atheist.
"We are an Orthodox country after all."
Maria, 23, an Orthodox believer from Kiev, said: "There's nothing wrong in his coming here. This is just a state visit. He is not going to convert anybody into his religion."
Independent Ukraine, however, inherited from the Soviet Union a predominantly atheist society.
The population is largely indifferent to the Pope's visit except in the western areas where the majority of Ukrainian Catholic parishes are concentrated.
The western city of Lviv expects many more pilgrims than the capital Kiev, and many of them should arrive from neighbouring Poland -- John Paul's homeland.
Analysts say that President Leonid Kuchma is hoping the visit will confirm his own political legitimacy and improve his faltering international standing.
The president has been weakened by a recent political crisis involving the tapes of wiretapped conversations implicating him in the murder of a political journalist, corruption, and undemocratic practices.
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