MOSCOW — The Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches will open talks next month on the status of the long-suppressed Ukrainian Catholic Church in an apparent bid by Moscow to establish relations with the Vatican.
Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev said Saturday that the two delegations will meet next month at a monastery in Finland for their preliminary discussions of the religiously and politically sensitive issue.
Filaret, whose archdiocese is headquartered in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, said that the talks would not be negotiations but attempts to clarify the positions of the two churches on the Ukrainian Catholic Church, whose members' allegiance is to Rome.
4 Decades of Persecution
For Catholics, the only acceptable resolution would be legal status for the Ukrainian, or Uniate, church after four decades of state persecution and an underground existence.
But Filaret, speaking to reporters at the Danilov Monastery here, acknowledged the strong desire of the Russian Orthodox Church and of the Soviet government to improve relations with the Vatican as they observe the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia.
That means, he acknowledged, discussing--if not resolving--the status of the Uniate church, which was outlawed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1946 when he ordered its merger with the Russian Orthodox Church. If the Vatican became "aggressive" about the issue, Filaret warned, then the dialogue would be difficult.
In Rome, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, the exiled head of the Uniate church, expressed hope that "in its millennium year the Ukrainian Catholic Church can be returned to its people."
Although pleased by the news of the negotiations--for them a sign of a possible breakthrough and a return to legality-- Lubachivsky and other Ukrainian church leaders said they had no details yet of the planned talks to be held at the Novy Volamsky Monastery near Kuopio, Finland.
"We are hoping and praying that this is a step toward the liberation of our church and our people," another official said in Rome.
The issue is extremely complex, intertwining theological and ecclesiastical disputes going back centuries with Ukrainian nationalism, resistance there to Soviet rule and socialism, and the alleged collaboration by church members with the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine in World War II.
Calling the Uniate church "traitorous," Stalin outlawed it immediately after the war as Moscow put down a surge of nationalism in the Ukraine.
Since then, a whole hierarchy of Uniate bishops, priests and nuns have ministered to a congregation estimated at 3 million to 4 million at secret Masses held in private apartments, remote farmhouses or deep in the forests of the Ukraine.
Cardinal Lubachivsky, who lives in exile in Rome, is waiting to return, he says, to his archdiocese in the city of Lvov. The Kremlin has significantly softened its stand on religion in recent months in recognition of the deep hold that Christianity retains on the people here even 70 years after the Bolshevik Revolution and in anticipation of the millennium observances this year.
Filaret announced Saturday that the state is returning to the church the 11th-Century Pechersky Monastery in Kiev as part of the millennium celebrations.
"We are to get the monastery, and the holy light will shine there again and the monks will pray there," he said.
The oldest monastery and one of the most sacred shrines of the church in the Soviet Union, Pechersky was one of the centers from which Christianity spread. The state closed it in 1961 and turned it into a museum.
Under an agreement between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church, half the monastery will again be used for religious purposes and half will remain a museum.
Not Extended to Catholics
Until now, this new liberalism toward religion has not been extended to the Catholic Church, which has long been viewed as a vehicle for Ukrainian and Lithuanian nationalism and thus a threat to Soviet rule.
A week ago, KGB security police dragged five Ukrainian Catholics from a Moscow-bound train, according to dissident sources here, to prevent them from meeting with President Reagan during his summit with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader.
Keston College in Oxford, England, which monitors religious freedom in the Soviet Union, says that Catholics have seen relatively little of the liberalism shown other religious and political dissidents in recent months, presumably because of the nationalism that Moscow sees in the Catholic church.
Andrei D. Sakharov, the Soviet physicist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his human rights campaigns, called Friday for legalization of the Ukrainian church and urged the Russian Orthodox Church to take the initiative in this direction during the Christian millennium celebrations.