Russian Patriarch Calls for Church Unity in Ukraine

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has arrived in Ukraine's capital city for a ten-day visit aimed at reasserting Moscow's authority over the church body's leaders in the predominantly Orthodox country.

Patriarch Kirill said Monday he would pray for the two nations' "unbreakable spiritual and church unity" - a statement referring to the efforts of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to establish an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

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.

After receiving Yushchenko's request for a national church, Bartholomew I said vaguely, "The mother church has not only the right, but also the obligation to support ... any constructive and promising proposal that would as soon as possible liquidate the dangerous split in the church."

A three-day visit by Bartholomew I last July similarly produced a mixed response, with both Moscow and Kiev claiming 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.