KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- The last time Pope John Paul II went on the road, he traveled to the Middle East, a place of explosive and obvious religious divides. Now he is going to a country where religious strife is more subtle, yet still bitter -- Ukraine.
When he lands here on Saturday, the pope will find a nation with deep splits among its Christian faiths.
Leaders of the dominant Orthodox church have spoken bitterly about the Roman Catholic pontiff's visit, describing disputes with those loyal to the pope as ''bleeding wounds.'' Yet there are also divisions among the Orthodox faithful, some of whom are welcoming John Paul.
A spiritual revival preceded the downfall of the officially atheist Soviet state nearly a decade ago, and now about two-thirds of the nearly 50 million Ukrainians define themselves as religious.
Most Ukrainian believers are Slav Orthodox, though the country also has up to 5 million Greek Catholics, a faith that uses Orthodox ritual but recognizes the pope's authority. There are about 1 million Roman Catholics, hundreds of thousands of Muslims and other, smaller religious groups.
The majority of Orthodox worshippers belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, an affiliate of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, which historically has controlled religious affairs in Ukraine.
The Moscow Patriarchate church still runs the majority of Orthodox parishes, but it suffered a heavy setback when a nationalist core of believers broke away in the early 1990s to form a separate church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate.
The two rival churches have feuded ever since over property and believers, with conflicts sometimes sliding into violence.
In 1995, police forcefully dispersed Kiev Patriarchate followers as they tried to bury their Patriarch Volodymyr in Kiev's ancient St. Sophia Cathedral. In 1999, a crowd of Moscow Patriarchate followers attacked and beat Volodymyr's successor Filaret and some of his aides after a consecration ceremony for a new cathedral in southern Ukraine.
President Leonid Kuchma has called for peaceful coexistence between the various Orthodox and Catholic denominations in the country. His mediation led religious leaders to sign a nonviolence agreement in 1997, but it appears to have done little to quell the strife.
To complicate the matters further, there is an even smaller splinter church, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, known by the acronym UAPZ, which is now involved in a fledgling unification process with the Kiev Patriarchate.
While the Moscow-based church views Ukraine as its own backyard, Filaret says Ukraine's Orthodox church should be recognized as autocephalous, or autonomous. He frequently accuses Moscow Patriarchate loyalists of being hostile to Ukraine.
And while followers of the Kiev Patriarchate and UAPZ generally welcome the Pope's upcoming visit as a major national and spiritual event, Moscow Patriarchate loyalists have staged several protests against it in recent weeks.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II argues that the pope's visit will only bring further religious strife to Ukraine. He repeatedly has ruled out a meeting with John Paul.
''We cannot meet when a war is going on in Ukraine between the Greek Catholics and the Orthodox and the Catholic church is engaged in expansion and proselytism on the canonic territory of the Russian church,'' Alexy said recently.
The mention of Greek, or Eastern rite Catholics did not come by chance. The Moscow church's dispute with them is even more bitter than with other Orthodox believers, and the rivalry is much more acute.
Ukraine's Greek Orthodox Church, which views itself as part of the Catholic world, has its own tragic history and its own martyrs.
The church was erased from parts of Ukraine in the mid-19th century, during the Russian Czarist rule, but retained its power base in western Ukraine. It saw brutal persecution again under the Soviets, who seized the area before World War II and took years to quell Ukrainian separatists after the war.
For Moscow, Greek Catholic churches represented the embodiment of Ukrainian nationalist spirit.
The Soviet secret police imprisoned and even executed many priests, and the church was forcibly incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946, though some parishes operated underground.
In the years of Soviet collapse, the church revived itself and Greek Catholic congregations seized church buildings and properties back from the Orthodox. For Alexy, the Moscow patriarch, these are ''wounds that are still bleeding.''
The divisions will make it difficult for the pope to accomplish his goal for the trip -- bringing unity among Christians.
On the Net:
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church site on pope's visit: http://www.papalvisit.org.ua
Peninsula Clarion ©2015. All Rights Reserved.