KIEV, Ukraine, JUNE 21, 2001 ( John Paul II´s upcoming trip to Ukraine may help unite two schismatic Orthodox Churches, which are already moving toward creating a national church.

The schismatics already regard Moscow Patriarch Alexy II a collaborator with Soviet-era Communists. The creation of a national church would spur further defections from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.

This in part explains Moscow´s opposition to the papal trip. For their part, the schismatic Patriarchate of Kiev and autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church welcome the papal trip.

The Pope is not going to Ukraine to stir up dissent, however. His five-day trip, which starts Saturday, is aimed at confirming the country´s Catholics in the faith and promoting ecumenical dialogue.

Still, the Orthodox tensions could make for a difficult trip.

"This is the great obstacle for the ecumenical dialogue," Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, apostolic nuncio in Ukraine, told Vatican Radio. He was referring to the Orthodox schisms and the relation with Moscow.

"It is necessary that the Orthodox regain their lost unity," he said. "However, the way in which it must be done is in the hands of the Orthodox. They must do so in keeping with the existing norms among the Orthodox Churches. Catholics must not interfere."

Ukraine in general is poised to welcome John Paul II.

"The whole of Ukraine is waiting with great expectation for this historical visit," Archbishop Eterovic said. "Catholics have prayed for a long time to see this moment. Many are preparing the final details to come to Kiev and Lviv, from different parts of Ukraine."

Catholics, most of them of the Eastern rite, comprise about one-tenth of this country´s 50 million inhabitants. Ukraine is majority Orthodox, though it is also 40% atheist.

The Orthodox Church here is obedient to the Moscow Patriarchate, and recognized by the rest of the world´s Orthodox Churches. It maintains official contacts with the Vatican, but opposes the papal visit. Metropolitan Vladimir, the Orthodox archbishop, plans to be abroad during the Pope´s visit.

A focus of Orthodox protest has been in the Kiev Laura, the great monastery at the source of the meandering Dnepr. On Wednesday, however, the monastery said in a statement that the pro-Moscow Ukrainian Orthodox Church has nothing to do with "manifestations of violent protest" against the papal visit.

At any rate, the average Ukrainian seems to pay little attention to these maneuvers among "professionals" of the Orthodox world.

To illustrate the atmosphere in Ukraine, Archbishop Eterovic recounted an anecdote.

"Two not-very-practicing young Orthodox have come to ask for tickets to attend the celebration of Mass with the Pope," he said. "When we gave them to them, they burst out crying. This means that there is great expectation, and that many people want to meet with the Holy Father and, through him, encounter Jesus Christ, and thus become active members of the Church of Christ."