Pope John Paul II appealed for unity Sunday between Ukraine's battling Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches at the first open-air mass of a controversial visit to the former Soviet republic.
The historic event witnessed by tens of thousands of Catholic pilgrims, many of whom had traveled from neighboring Russia and Belarus, as well as from further afield, lasted two hours in pouring rain.
The ailing 81-year-old pope hailed the mass as an opportunity to heal Christianity's East-West divide, citing the example of medieval Kiev, traditionally regarded as the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy following the conversion of the Ukrainians in 988 AD.
But mixing politics and religion, he also paid tribute to the country's more recent martyrs, including the Catholics whose faith was outlawed in "the dark days of Communist terror."
He beatified 28 Eastern rite Catholics, mostly victims of Nazism or Communism.
Kiev was "the place of the baptism of Rus," the ancient word for Russia, the pope said, speaking in Ukrainian, before adding: "Kiev played the role of a precursor of God among many people at the end of the first millennium."
Orthodox militants in religion's equivalent of the Cold War have staged a wave of protests across Ukraine denouncing the pope as "the precursor of the Anti-Christ."
Since the collapse 10 years ago of the Soviet Union, which banned Catholicism, Ukraine's Orthodox majority has accused the pope's followers of seeking to gain converts as well as seizing parishes and church assets.
But the frail pontiff sought to reach out to his Orthodox critics Sunday, appealing to the Eastern church to end the bitter dispute after the example of Kiev's medieval saints 1,000 years ago.
"While living according to two different traditions, the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Rome were still in full communion at that time," the pope said.
He expressed hope that Sunday's Latin mass would evoke "the memory of the one Christian baptism we all share and help to restore the situation of communion in which diversity of traditions posed no obstacle to unity in faith and ecclesiastical life."
Police said that almost 100,000 worshippers had gathered in drizzling rain for the open-air mass, but the Ukrainian Catholic Church estimated the crowd at only 40,000, blaming inclement weather for a turnout much lower than the predicted 300,000.
Ukraine's Uniate (or Greek) Catholics are so called because, though loyal to the pope, they worship according to the Eastern Rite that was retained in the Greek Orthodox church after the Great Schism of 1054.
On Monday, the pope is due to return to Chaika airport to celebrate mass according to the Eastern rite, before travelling to the western city of Lviv, a bastion of Ukrainian Catholicism, where he will hold two other masses.
The pope's visit has stoked long-smouldering enmities between Ukraine's Roman Catholics and Orthodox, but on arriving in Kiev Saturday, John Paul formally rejected charges that his church was out to convert the local population.
The country of 50 million is split along religious lines, but Catholicism has grown steadily over the past decade and now claims six million believers as opposed to 10 million practicing Orthodox.
However, the pope went out of his way, on arriving in Kiev Saturday, to say that he had "not come here with the intention to proselytise, but as a witness for Christ."
The pontiff also appealed for Orthodox forgiveness of Catholic "errors," including the seizure of hundreds of churches in the aftermath of the fall of Communism a decade ago.
The Russian Orthodox Church welcomed Sunday the papal apology but said it must be followed by "an attempt to open a direct, honest dialogue with us."
However Patriarch Alexis II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, warned that the papal visit to Ukraine could "close the door" on relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, during a visit to neighboring Belarus.
Before the start of Sunday's historic mass, the pope greeted pilgrims at the airport during a ceremonial lap of honor in his legendary bulletproof popemobile.
Orthodox leaders have pledged not to disrupt his visit to Ukraine but warn that anger is mounting within their congregation, while Ukraine's Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko has said anti-Catholic "provocation" cannot be ruled out -- CHAIKA AIRPORT, Ukraine (AFP)
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