KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ Pope John Paul II pleaded Saturday for inter-church understanding in Ukraine, a predominantly Orthodox country where the papal visit has cast a spotlight on bitter religious division, and offered an apology for Catholic contributions to the strife.
``Let us recognize our faults as we ask forgiveness for the errors committed in both the distant and recent past,'' the pope said after arriving at Borispil Airport outside the capital Kiev. ``Let us in turn offer forgiveness for the wrongs endured.''
A small group of local residents stood on the tarmac with signs welcoming the pontiff, and children in colorful, embroidered folk costumes presented him with a bowl of Ukrainian soil and the traditional Slavic offering of bread and salt.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma greeted the pope, clasping his hands and holding him by the elbow as he walked slowly to the covered red podium in front of the airport building. After a morning of steady rain, the sun was shining brightly, bouncing off the brass instruments of the military band and the bayonets of the honor guard.
``Finally, with deep joy, I have been able to kiss the beloved soil of Ukraine. I thank God for the gift that he has given me today,'' the pope said in Ukrainian.
The Vatican has called the five-day trip to Ukraine a mission of ``peace and reconciliation,'' and John Paul is hoping it will help calm inter-church tensions and even pave the way for a pilgrimage to Russia _ like Ukraine, a predominantly Orthodox country.
``I have not come here with the intention of proselytizing,'' the pope said, adding that he wanted to speak with all church leaders in Ukraine.
Yet Russian Orthodox Church leaders in Moscow, who also control the majority of Orthodox parishes in Ukraine, have rejected the pope's overtures to overcome the schism that has divided the branches of the church for nearly 1,000 years.
They accuse Catholics of aggressive missionary activity among the Orthodox and of seizing Orthodox churches and other property in Ukraine.
``The pontiff's visit will not bring any 'pacification' to the relations between confessions in Ukraine but, on the contrary, it will only complicate them,'' Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II said Saturday, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
No Orthodox representatives were at the airport to greet the pope, and representatives of Ukraine's largest Orthodox Church, which is affiliated with Moscow, planned to boycott a meeting Sunday between the pope and leaders of Ukrainian churches. Metropolitan Vladimir, the head of the church, flatly ruled out any meeting with John Paul.
``If we embrace and give each other a brotherly kiss at a time when problems continue to exist and the people are suffering, it would look like a betrayal of Orthodoxy,'' he said in a documentary due to be broadcast Saturday on Russia's RTR television.
Protest organizers instructed their followers not to demonstrate during the pope's visit.
Instead, they said Orthodox believers could attend all-night vigils where a special prayer used in time of war _ ``Against the Adversary'' _ would be read.
Before the pope's arrival Saturday, dozens of believers chanted prayers and walked in a procession around the main cathedral in Kiev's Monastery of the Caves, a site considered sacred to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and central to the Ukrainian nation's identity.
John Paul is visiting Ukraine at the invitation of Kuchma, who apparently saw the trip as a way of advancing his nation's quest for acceptance in the West. Kuchma was the focus of angry protests over the fall and winter by opponents accusing him of involvement in the killing of a critical journalist, but he steadfastly rejected the accusations and the opposition roar has faded.
The country of 50 million is fractured along religious lines. There are about 1 million Roman Catholics and 5 million Eastern Rite Catholics, who follow Orthodox ritual but bear allegiance to the pope. Two small Orthodox churches are vying with the Moscow Patriarchate for influence among Orthodox believers.
In addition to the two Masses outside Kiev, the pope was scheduled to visit a monument that commemorates the Nazis' killing of more than 33,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, and another massacre site, at Bykovnia, where the Soviet secret police slaughtered Ukrainians. He was also to beatify 28 Eastern rite Catholics, most of them considered martyrs under the Nazis or communists.
On Monday, John Paul is to travel to the western Catholic stronghold of Lviv, where at least 1.5 million believers are expected to attend Mass.