Pope John Paul II ventured deep into a Ukrainian forest Sunday and, guided by yellow ribbons on the trunks of pine trees, found a clearing dominated by a tall bronze cross, where he bowed for two minutes of silent prayer.
"Give them, Lord, eternal rest," he said, visibly moved as he lifted his head and blessed the site--an 11-acre collective grave for up to 200,000 Ukrainians killed in Soviet police custody from 1929 to 1941.
John Paul's brief visit to the Bykivnia Woods was the most poignant moment on a day of papal tributes to the victims of Soviet and Nazi repression in a country that suffered some of the worst of both. The tributes overshadowed the sparring among Ukraine's rival Christian churches, which John Paul is trying to reconcile during a five-day visit.
The 81-year-old Roman Catholic leader appealed to Ukrainians of all faiths Sunday to find common cause in the lessons of their country's "painful experiences" under Nazi occupation and Soviet rule and to work to "reject every form of violence."
A day after landing in this former Soviet republic, the Polish pontiff held an outdoor Mass for about 20,000 people. Later he presided at an interfaith meeting with 14 Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders--plus two renegade Orthodox Christian prelates who refused to go along with a snub of the pope by Ukraine's largest Orthodox church.
At the country's first papal Mass, John Paul spoke of the persecution of Christians during their millennium of existence in Ukraine and especially in the decades of Soviet rule that ended 10 years ago.
"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," he said in his homily.
At the interfaith meeting, he remembered the 238,000 Muslim Tatars deported by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin from Crimea, now part of Ukraine, and praised the Ukrainian government's efforts to bring them and their descendants home from Central Asian exile.
'Murderous Frenzy' at Babi Yar Cited
The pope also spoke of the "murderous frenzy" at Babi Yar, a deep ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where Nazi squads executed more than 33,000 Jews over a two-day period in 1941 in one of the bloodiest opening chapters of the Holocaust. Eventually, the Nazis gunned down as many as 200,000 Jews and other prisoners at Babi Yar.
"Who can ever forget the immense tribute of blood that [the Jews] paid to the fanaticism of an ideology propounding the superiority of one race over others?" the pope said, calling the slaughter at Babi Yar "one of the most atrocious of the many crimes" of the 20th century.
Yaakov Dov Bleich, Kiev's chief rabbi, welcomed the pope's remarks and his plan to visit Babi Yar today. Bleich said the gesture will help restore the Vatican's "very positive relationship" with Jews in the wake of a controversial papal visit to Syria last month.
Jewish leaders assailed John Paul's failure to rebuke Syrian President Bashar Assad for declaring, in a welcoming address to the pope, that Israelis were mistreating Palestinians "with the same mentality" as Jews who betrayed Jesus Christ.
After Sunday's interfaith meeting, the pope rode out of Kiev, the capital, in his glass-covered popemobile and into the Bykivnia Woods, passing the yellow ribbons and simple wooden plaques that are hung on trees and on wrought iron crosses to honor those buried there.
Waiting in a drizzle at the bronze cross, the site's central monument, were about 100 members of Memorial, a human rights group that helped discover the mass grave after Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev opened secret KGB archives in 1989. Some wept in silence, holding photographs of executed relatives in trembling hands, as the pope came and prayed.
When John Paul turned to leave, someone shouted in Polish, "Thank you, Father!"
It was Arthur Lukowski, a 73-year-old businessman from Dyer, Ind. He flew to Kiev promptly after learning late last week that the pope would be coming to the woods.
Lukowski said his father, a Soviet citizen in Kiev, was arrested in 1937, accused of spying for Poland. The last the family heard, he had been sent to Siberia. According to the archives, he was shot and buried in the Bykivnia Woods, Lukowski said.
Sunday's drizzle also fell on worshipers at the morning Mass at Kiev's Chaika airfield, and organizers blamed it for a disappointing turnout--less than one-tenth of the expected 350,000 people.
But Vatican officials said they were encouraged by the presence of some Orthodox believers at the Latin Rite Catholic Mass, calling that a sign of the tolerance the pope is trying to promote.
Metropolitan Vladimir, leader of the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church, refused to meet the pope. His church, Ukraine's largest, opposed the papal visit, citing unresolved disputes with Ukrainian Catholics over church property.
Volodymyr Kovtunenko, 59, an Orthodox Christian and retired construction worker, said the historic importance of John Paul's visit overshadowed all that.
"No matter what my own faith is, if the pope found the strength to come to Ukraine, then I felt I had to be here to welcome him," he said after attending the Mass.
Metropolitan Filaret and Metropolitan Methodius, leaders of Orthodox factions that have broken with Metropolitan Vladimir's church, attended Sunday's interfaith meeting, lining up with other religious leaders to kiss the pope on both cheeks.
Some Orthodox Clergy Endorse Pope's Appeal
Metropolitans Filaret and Methodius endorsed the pope's assertion that healing the disunity among Christians is "one of the greatest challenges of our time." Metropolitan Filaret asserted that Metropolitan Vladimir and his superior, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexi II, were isolating themselves by resisting the pope's overtures.
"One cannot close oneself away in today's world," Metropolitan Filaret told reporters after the meeting. "The patriarch will be forced to take steps toward dialogue with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church," he added, predicting that Alexi will eventually abandon his opposition to a papal visit to Russia.
Special correspondent Mary Mycio contributed to this report.