KIEV - The Associated Press
Moscow and Kiev both are claiming victory in a dispute creating an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church � which Russia fiercely opposes � after a weekend visit by the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is hoping to win recognition of the local church's independence from Moscow as part of his drive to shed centuries-long Russian influence. The Russian Orthodox Church resists losing control over this predominantly Orthodox country of 46 million.
Yushchenko said on his Web site that the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox believers has voiced support for the creation of a local church, independent of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
"I am glad that the Patriarch is backing the aspiration of the Ukrainian people to have its own national local church," Yushchenko said in a statement. "Such aspirations are in line with all the principles of a nation, state and of course church life."
Yushchenko made the statement Sunday at the end of a three-day visit by Patriarch Bartholomeos I of Istanbul, who came to Kiev to attend massive celebrations marking the 1020th anniversary of Ukraine's and Russia's conversion to Christianity.
But Mikhail Prokopenko, a spokesman for the Moscow-based Russian church, disputed Yushchenko's claim. He told The Associated Press yesterday that a meeting between Russian Patriarch Alexy II and Bartholomeos confirmed that Istanbul recognizes Moscow's supremacy over the Ukrainian church.
Prokopenko also said that Bartholomeos also will not recognize a breakaway church in Ukraine that has proclaimed its independence and whose leader has been excommunicated by Alexy.
Bartholomeos' office declined immediate comment.
Experts say the Ukrainian church likely will get independence eventually, like churches in other countries with sizable Orthodox populations. But an abrupt decision on this could lead to a deep split between Istanbul and the Russian church, the biggest Orthodox church in the world, which claims 95 million believers out of the world's 250 million Orthodox.