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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pope Remembers Communist Terror

KIEV — Touching on painful memories, Pope John Paul II paid tribute Sunday to Ukrainian Christians persecuted during the "dark times of the communist terror" and Jews murdered by the Nazis.

"Land of Ukraine, drenched with the blood of martyrs, thank you for the example of fidelity to the Gospel, which you have given to Christians the world over," John Paul said during his first Mass on Ukrainian soil.

The pope invited the leaders of Ukrainian religious denominations to a meeting, which the Moscow-linked majority Orthodox Church pointedly skipped. But the leader of a splinter Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Filaret, showed up.

"We hope that your visit will contribute to the development of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and not a deepening of the rift, as Moscow thinks," Filaret said. "We pray for the unification of God's holy churches."

Turning to the tragic history of the Jews in Ukraine, the pope also spoke of the memorial at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev where up to 200,000 Jews and others were shot and killed by the Nazis. He called the massacre "one of the most atrocious of the many crimes" of the 20th century.

"May the memory of this episode, a murderous frenzy, be a salutary warning to all," the pope said ahead of a visit to Babi Yar on Monday.

After his meeting with the church leaders, the pope traveled to the site of another atrocity of the century: the mass graves of up to 200,000 Ukrainians who were killed in Kiev jails in 1929-41. He stood in prayer for two minutes before a six-meter bronze cross.

Yellow ribbons around tree trunks mark the spots in the Bykivnia Woods where the victims' bodies were dumped. On some trees, simple wooden plaques list victims' names and carry such messages as "You are Stalinist hangmen."

Arthur Lukovski, of Dyer, Indiana, learned two days ago that the pope would be coming to the woods and flew to Kiev immediately because his father is presumed to have been buried in Bykivnia.

He was 9 years old when his father, Joseph, was taken away in Kiev, and only after then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to open the files in 1989 did he learn of his father's fate. He died at the hands of the Communist secret police.

"I still today cry — 9 years old, and bandits took my father," Lukovski said, weeping as he told the story.

Although the pope's overtures to the leaders of the main Orthodox Church in Ukraine have been ignored, the Vatican expressed delight that a number of Orthodox attended the pope's Mass on Sunday morning. The service was held on a rain-swept, grassy airfield 16 kilometers outside the capital.

"We are here because God is one and we love God," said Valentyna Checkan, from the town of Teteriv near Kiev. "Every nation has its own ceremonies, but the priests are the same."

"We should forgive even enemies," she said.

The church had expected that the Mass, celebrated in the Western rite, would draw as many as 350,000 people. However, organizers said just 20,000 to 30,000 showed up.

Kiev police estimated that some 150,000 had turned out, according to papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

A spokesman for the organizers, the Reverend Kenneth Nowakowski, said the chilly, wet weather, long distance from Kiev and fears of heavy security had kept many people away.

Amid a sea of umbrellas, worshipers held up cloth banners imploring the pope to "Strengthen Our Faith" and "Bless Ukraine." Others held up their national flags, from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Belarus and other nations, and one group hoisted a banner reading "Greetings From Siberia."

Navarro-Valls said John Paul's visit to Ukraine was the fulfillment of a dream and that he has not given up his hopes for visiting Russia one day.

The pope kicked off the five-day visit Saturday by declaring, "I come in love," upon his arrival in Kiev.

Responding to frequent complaints from Moscow that the Vatican is seeking to extend its influence in traditional Orthodox lands, John Paul issued assurances that "I have not come here with the intention of proselytizing."

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma welcomed the pope at the airport, clasping his hands and holding him by the elbow as he walked slowly to the covered podium in front of the airport building.

The frail 81-year-old pope flew from Rome following days of street demonstrations in Kiev and condemnations of the visit by the Moscow Patriarchate, the main branch of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine.

"We hope that it [the visit] will not stop the improvement of our relationship. But that could happen," Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II warned during a visit Saturday to Belarus.

Only sparse crowds turned out on the streets of Kiev, but protesters heeded calls by the Orthodox Church and ceased their demonstrations. Still, no Orthodox leader greeted John Paul at the airport, and the leader of the Moscow branch of the Ukrainian church had reportedly left the city.

The pope is scheduled to visit the western Catholic stronghold Lviv on Monday. He will on Wednesday beatify 28 Ukrainians, most of them priests tortured by the communists, including a priest boiled to death in a prison near Lviv.