Russian Orthodox Head Rejects Calls for Independent Church in Ukraine

The spiritual leader of the Russian Orthodox Church rejected calls from Ukraine's president to create a local Orthodox church body independent from Moscow, stressing that the dominant Orthodox church in Ukraine, which answers to Moscow, is the only legitimate church there.

"This church, Mr. President, already exists," Kirill said after meeting up with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Monday at the Holodomor Victims Memorial in Kiev. "If it didn't exist today, Ukraine wouldn't exist either."

"But wounds have formed in this church," he acknowledged, according to The Associated Press, "and these wounds must be healed."

Though the country's main Orthodox church recognizes Kirill as their spiritual leader, some church leaders have proclaimed themselves independent of Moscow and have been gaining popularity and political support from Yushchenko.

The president is encouraging church leaders in Ukraine to shake off centuries of Russian influence and asked the world's Orthodox spiritual leader, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, last year to bless the creation of a Ukrainian church that would be independent of the powerful Moscow patriarchate.

Yushchenko's request for a national church, however, have only been met with unclear responses from Constantinople - one of which led both Moscow and Kiev to claim victory.

Though many observers believe the Ukrainian church is bound to attain independence eventually, some note that an abrupt decision could lead to a deep split between Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims 95 million out of the world's 250 million Orthodox and is the biggest in the world.

As a nation, Ukraine has been independent since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Kirill, who has been in Ukraine since July 27, was scheduled to conclude his visit Wednesday with an event commemorating the 450th anniversary of the miracle of the Pochaiv icon of the Madonna.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church expects Kirill to visit Ukraine again in 2010.