VATICAN CITY, MAY 7, 2004 ( John Paul II called for effective legal equality among the Churches in Ukraine, when he welcomed the new ambassador of Kiev to the Vatican.

At an audience today, the Pope said the Catholic Church stands ready to support the country's "cultural and spiritual identity," so influenced by the Gospel.

In turn, the new ambassador, Grygorii Fokovych Khoruzhyi, said that the Ukrainian government is pursuing a policy of religious freedom that will allow ecclesial communities to carry out their mission.

"In this context of good will," the Pope replied, "it is hoped that there will soon be a juridical definition of the Churches at the level of effective equality among all of them."

Just under 10% of Ukraine's 48 million inhabitants are Catholic, mostly of the Eastern rite. Since the fall of Communism, these Catholics have experienced "a promising springtime of hope," John Paul II said.

The majority of the population is Orthodox, under the Patriarchate of Moscow, although there have been schisms in recent years.

The Pontiff also appealed to the government for "honorable agreements on religious education and state recognition of theology as a university discipline," to surmount the situation of the Communist era.

In addition, the Holy Father expressed the hope that "satisfactory agreements will be established in the most delicate area of the restitution of ecclesiastical properties confiscated during the Communist dictatorship."

Referring to the religious situation of the country, the Pope said, "Unfortunately, the disciples of Christ are still divided and this is seen with a certain sorrow by the whole of the Ukrainian community."

"Ecumenical dialogue is under way and leads to ever closer understanding in reciprocal respect and in the constant pursuit of the unity desired by Christ," he said. "May this sincere dialogue of broad outlook continue and be intensified thanks to the contribution of all."