The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was accompanied by a proclamation of autonomy by a segment of Ukraine's Orthodox Church, whose leader is known as the Kyiv Patriarch. Another part of the Orthodox Church - the so-called Moscow Patriarchate - recognizes the Patriarch in Russia. Both churches claim millions of followers and also reflect Ukraine's political divide between those who favor closer ties with Russia and those seeking to orient their country towards Europe. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has this report from Kyiv.
Saint Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv - destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930's - was rebuilt to its original glory from centuries ago, after Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
Many of those who pray here say they support Ukrainian independence and mistrust Russia. Among them is Andriy, an attorney and Greek Catholic from western Ukraine. He said he feels comfortable in an Orthodox church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, but not of Moscow.
Andriy said he views the Moscow Patriarchate as an organization whose functions are definitely not religious, but rather, a branch of the Russian state. He claims all anti-Ukrainian actions in Ukraine are supported by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The spokesman for Moscow's Patriarchate in Kyiv, Archimandrite Kyril Hovorun, said church leaders are aware of such concerns. Hovorun added his church wants to unite a nation dangerously divided between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces.
Archimandrite Kyril said the church is seeking to implement a policy - if policy is a proper term for a church - that does not aggravate either side. He said its task is not to just passively take care of individuals, but to unite them into a single people - East and West - so that they feel themselves as part of a common whole, a large project and large civilization that is Ukraine.
Hovorun said millions of people who belong to Ukraine's Moscow Patriarchate are good Ukrainians who should not be viewed as Russia's surrogates.
Nadezhda, an eastern Ukrainian travel agent, attends services in churches that recognize Moscow.
Nadezhda said the church was handed down to people for generations through their parents so she does not see any reason to change anything. She noted that it represents the union of three fraternal peoples, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusyns and sees no need to split. She added that there is but one God.
Officials in the Kyiv Patriarchate acknowledged efforts by some in the Moscow Patriarchate to create a separate Ukrainian church. But Bishop Yevstratiy of the Kyiv Patriarchate said their church must be independent of Russia.
Bishop Yevstratiy said if a church is located in one nation, but its leadership is situated in another - especially if relations between those two countries happen not to be simple - then it becomes very difficult to overcome the temptation to use church structures of the neighboring state for political ends, which he said is happening in Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians noted that the headquarters of the Moscow Patriarchate in Kyiv are located on Ivan Mazepa Street, which is named after an 18th century Ukrainian leader who built many of the churches in the Patriarchate's ancient complex. Mazepa's image is also on Ukraine's 10-hryvna currency note.
But in Russia, the term "Traitor Mazepa" remains common. The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Ivan Mazepa for violating a loyalty oath to Czar Peter the Great in 1709. Orthodox officials in Ukraine said the Russian church has not responded to their requests for Mazepa's reinstatement.