Ukrainian President Wants National Church

The Ukrainian president on Saturday asked the world's Orthodox spiritual leader to bless the creation of a Ukrainian church that would be independent of the powerful Moscow patriarchate.

The request to Bartholomew I of Constantinople is part of Viktor Yushchenko's drive to assert Ukraine's independence and shake off centuries of Russian influence. It is certain to anger the Russian Orthodox church, which is trying to maintain its influence over this Orthodox country of 46 million.

"I believe that, as if by the gift of God, as a historical truth and justice, a national self-governing church will be established in Ukraine," Yushchenko said at the start of a prayer service marking the 1,020th anniversary of Ukraine's and Russia's conversion to Christianity.

"I ask your all-holiness for your blessing for our dreams, for truth, for our hope, for our country, for Ukraine," the president said to Bartholomew.

The Patriarch gave a vague response.

"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," Bartholomew said.

Many observers believe the Ukrainian church, which now answers to the Moscow patriarchate, is bound to attain independence eventually. However, 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.

Although all Orthodox churches recognize Bartholomew as their spiritual leader, Constantinople and Moscow have been jostling for influence, and disagreement over Ukraine could lead to a major schism.

The Russian-affiliated Ukrainian church now enjoys broad autonomy from the Moscow patriarchate, but is still not independent and does not have its own patriarch in the way that the Georgian, Bulgarian and other churches in countries with a sizable Orthodox population do.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II was to arrive in Kiev later Saturday and is expected to lead prayers together with Bartholomew and later hold talks with the spiritual leader.

Bartholomew's visit is the first to Ukraine in 350 years by the recognized spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox believers.

Efforts to win autonomy have split the Ukrainian church, with two breakaway churches setting themselves up since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Both churches are smaller than Ukraine's Russian-affiliated church, which claims up to 28 million adherents.

The Slavic world's conversion to Christianity began in the year 988 when prince Volodymyr marched his subjects into Kiev's Dnieper River for mass baptism.

Russian Orthodox church officials have complained that they have been shut out of preparations for this week's celebrations. They have also accused Ukrainian officials of seeking to "privatize" common history and bill Volodymyr and others as strictly Ukrainian rather than wider Slavic figures.