Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, embarked on a 10-day visit to Ukraine on Monday, according to RIA Novosti.
In the capital Kiev, Kirill will visit holy sites and meet with President Viktor Yushchenko before touring eastern and western Ukraine, and the Crimean peninsula.
Ukraine is a predominantly Orthodox country, but the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is divided, with the Moscow Patriarchy controlling the larger branch of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Yushchenko, who has pursued pro-Western policies and sought to reduce Russian influence in the country, has advocated unifying Ukrainian Orthodox churches under the Kiev Patriarchate.
Several dozen protesters gathered outside the airport in Kiev as Krill arrived. Clad in yellow and blue clothes, the colors of Ukraine`s national flag, they held up banners saying: "We serve to God, not the Kremlin," and "Ukraine needs its own church."
Patriarch Kirill will visit the Kiev Laura, one of the oldest monasteries in Ukraine and Russia, lay flowers at a statue of St. Prince Vladimir, who converted to Christianity in 988 and baptized the medieval state of Rus, and pay tribute to the victims of Soviet-era famine Holodomor, which the Ukrainian authorities say was genocide of the Ukrainian people.
Kirill will stay in Kiev, which he calls "the southern capital of Russian Orthodoxy," until Wednesday and will hold two services in the laura, meet with Ukrainian church officials and believers, and give a live television interview.
The patriarch is likely to receive a warm welcome in the Russian-speaking east, but nationalist groups in Ukraine`s west have protested against what they call the patriarch`s treatment of Ukraine as part of Russia.
Speaking to Ukrainian journalists ahead of the visit, Kirill said this would be a pastoral, rather than political, visit.
"My goal is to pray with the Ukrainian people. This may seem odd or hypocritical, or even untrue to some people. But this is what I plan to do," he said.
The visit will be the longest foreign trip so far by Patriarch Kirill, who was elected to replace the late Alexy II in February.