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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Lleader Dies at 86

KIEV, Ukraine - Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, the head of Ukraine's Greek Catholics who returned triumphantly to his homeland in 1991 after 53 years in exile, died Thursday in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Lubachivsky, who was 86, was hailed as a hero by the Vatican for his role in the struggle to preserve the church, which was outlawed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1946 and driven underground.

"Cardinal Lubachivsky was the pastor of a martyred church that had experienced the catacombs of the 20th century, "the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano wrote in a front-page story.

Greek Catholics have services similar to those of Eastern Orthodox churches but owe allegiance to the pope. The Ukrainian church, with some 4 million members, is concentrated in the western part of Ukraine in areas that were under Polish and Austrian rule until World War II, when they became part of the Soviet Union.

Hundreds of priests were imprisoned and churches, schools and monasteries were turned over to the dominant Russian Orthodox Church.

But the Ukrainian church survived underground to re-emerge when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev lifted the ban. Ukraine became independent in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

President Leonid Kuchma eulogized Lubachivsky as an "outstanding religious personality, a well-known theologian who has left a notable trace in Ukraine's modern history."

"His God-inspired labors to restore freedom, spiritual values and morality of the Ukrainian people were recognized and respected by all,"Kuchma said in a statement, adding that Lubachivsky's wisdom and tolerance served as "an example for millions."

Lubachivsky, a U.S. citizen, headed the Ukrainian church from Rome until the crumbling of Communist power made it possible for him to take up residence in Lviv. Some 25,000 people, many weeping and singing hymns, lined the streets to greet his motorcade.

"This native church of mine was resurrected and rose from the grave,"he said.

Funeral services will held next week, a church spokesman said on condition of anonymity. He declined to say what the cause of death was or to give other details.

Lubachivsky, who was born in the town of Dolyna in the province of Galicia, left the Ukraine in 1938 as a young priest to study in Austria. He lived in the United States from 1947 to 1980, serving the final year as Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia.

He moved to the Vatican in 1980 and became head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church following the death of Cardinal Joseph Slipy in 1984.