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Pope urges unity at Ukraine mass

Pope John Paul yesterday urged Christians in Ukraine, where differences between Orthodox and Catholics have sometimes flared into violence, to rediscover the unity they enjoyed before the Great Schism a millennium ago.

In a homily at a rain-soaked mass at an airport on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, the Pope also paid tribute to all Christians who suffered during what he called "the dark days of Communist terror."

Cheers, banners from groups across former Soviet Ukraine and Russia, and a sea of umbrellas greeted the pontiff as he arrived at Chaika airfield in his Popemobile, waving to a relatively small but euphoric crowd.

"This is the biggest and happiest moment of my life and, only several years ago, I wouldn't have believed it possible I could come and see this greatest of men," Andrei Letunovsky, 33, a lecturer from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, said.

The rain-soaked crowd, estimated at around 40,000 by Ukrainian Catholic Churches spokesman Ken Nowakowski, was far short of the 200,000 to 400,000 expected. Tight security and difficult travel arrangements were also blamed for the low attendance.

On the second day of his five-day trip to Ukraine, which has been opposed by many Orthodox believers, the Pope expressed his hope that all Christians here could live in harmony.

Noting that Ukraine became Christian in 988, before the 1054 Schism which split Christianity into the eastern and western churches, he said both sides should look to the past to "help restore that situation of communion in which diversity of traditions poses no obstacle to unity in faith and church life."

When he started his difficult trip to Ukraine on Saturday, the Pope apologised openly for past Catholic wrongs and rejected the notion held by some Orthodox that he had come on a crusade to convert them to Catholicism.

Reading his homily from a large wooden boat-shaped platform and flanked by clergy and choirs, the Pope said Ukrainians of both Orthodox and Catholic traditions should preserve and nourish a flowering of religious and cultural diversity.

Some Orthodox, chiefly those aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, see the local Catholic Church as the Trojan Horse of an army bent on poaching Orthodox souls in a post-Communist world of religious freedom.

The Pope paid tribute to the many Christians who were killed or persecuted for their faith in totalitarian times, saying "the land of Ukraine is drenched with blood of martyrs."

The Pope will beatify 27 Soviet-era martyrs at a ceremony in the western city of Lviv during the last two days of his visit. It will be Ukraine's first beatification -- the penultimate step toward becoming a saint -- for the Greek Catholics since 1867.

"May their witness serve as an example and a stimulus for the Christians of the Third Millennium," the Pope said.