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Soviets Open the Way to Legalization of Ukrainian Catholic Church With PM-Pope-Gorbachev, Bjt

December 1, 1989

MOSCOW (AP) _ Ukrainian officials cleared the way for legalizing the banned Ukrainian Catholic Church by allowing worshipers to register with authorities like members of other faiths, the republic’s top religious official said today.

The status of the Ukrainian church, banned since the days of dictator Josef Stalin, was expected to be a top subject for discussion when President Mikhail S. Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II today during the first visit by a Soviet Communist Party leader to the Vatican.

Ukrainian Catholics had expressed hope the unprecedented meeting would lead to the legalization of their church, which was ordered merged under Stalin with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946 and subsequently went underground.

After meeting the pope at the Vatican, Gorbachev pledged that the Soviet Union will soon guarantee freedom of religion at home and establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican. But he did not mention the Ukrainian church.

The pope issued a strong call for religious freedom for all believers which included a reference to the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

According to Western sources, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has up to 4 million members. Believers call themselves ″members of the world’s largest banned religious group.″

Nikolai Kolesnik, chairman of the Ukrainian government Council on Religious Affairs, said today that officials in the republic have now decided ″societies of Greek (rite) Catholics can be registered like other religious groups″ as required by Soviet law. That would allow individual Ukrainian Catholic congregations to gather legally. Kolesnik said it was possible the church’s hierarchy could also be restored.

″After a period of registration, the question of the church itself can be raised,″ he said, speaking in a telephone interview from Kiev.

The decision to allow the registration of Catholic congregations in the Ukraine was taken Nov. 24, and published later in the republic’s press, Kolesnik said.

The switch in policy toward the Ukrainian Catholic Church is the latest manifestation of the more tolerant official attitude to religion since Gorbachev became Soviet Communist Party chief in March 1985.

Gorbachev, who was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church but rose through the ranks of the officially atheistic Communist Party, acknowledged in a speech in Rome Thursday that the Soviets used to treat religion ″in a simplistic manner.″

″But now we not only proceed from the assumption that no one should interfere in matters of the individual’s conscience; we also say that the moral values which religion generated and embodied for centuries can help in the work of renewal in our country, too. In fact, this is already happening,″ Gorbachev said on the eve of his meeting with John Paul.

The Vatican-based head of the Ukrainian church, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, called for a day of fasting and prayer Nov. 26 for legalization of the church.

According to Ukrainian activists, tens of thousands of people - from 150,000 to 200,000 in the city of Lvov alone - took part in outdoor Masses and rallies to call for the church’s legalization.

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