A VIOLENT dispute over the burial of a Ukrainian Orthodox patriarch has provided a fresh forum for Ukrainian nationalists, chafing against Russian influence in their country.
The nationalists' prominence has declined four years into independence as Ukraine's priority switches from politics to economics - until this week. A mass procession of mourners, priests, and uniformed extreme nationalists clashed with riot police in a rare burst of violence during a funeral for Patriarch Volodymyr, the head of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox church.
Dozens of people were injured when police used truncheons and tear gas on Tuesday to block the procession, led by church leaders set on burying Volodymyr within the 11th-century St. Sofia cathedral.
The government and the religious leaders yesterday were locked in a standoff over where to bury Volodymyr. Church leaders and nationalist parliament deputies accuse the government of pandering to the dominant Russian Orthodox branch in Ukraine and trying to crush the independent church.
''The authorities do not want Ukraine to have its own church,'' says Metropolitan Filaret, the bearded, white-haired successor to Volodymyr. ''It appears that Ukrainians are still obliged to listen to someone else, even though we are independent.''
Volodymyr, a political prisoner for 19 years in Soviet times, spent much of his life battling to build a Ukrainian church separate from Russian Orthodoxy. The independent church finally split in 1992, but has not been officially recognized by world Orthodoxy and the Moscow-ruled church still dominates in Ukraine.
Kiev officials, under pressure from nationalists over the police beatings, maintain St. Sofia's is a historical landmark, and propose the church bury Volodymyr at another cathedral or a cemetery.
The dispute has united incongruous political bedfellows. Robed Orthodox clergymen, nationalist members of parliament and ultranationalists from the small but noisy Ukrainian Nationalist Self-Defense organization have appeared side by side.
The government has been mostly silent on the embarrassing police beatings. Senior government ministers have ordered an investigation into the incident.
''It's a mess. Clearly, nationalists have used the funeral, an emotionally charged issue, to make a political point that the Ukrainian church should be the main one in the country,'' said one Western diplomat in Kiev. ''But people should be able to prove a point without being beaten up. There was a rapidly evolving situation and the government people just couldn't cope.''
The political fallout of the incident remains unclear. But nationalists - about one-quarter of the parliament - have condemned the government and President Leonid Kuchma for allowing the chaos to happen in the first place.
Some are talking about removing their signatures from a peace pact that parliament signed with Kuchma in May, in which the majority of lawmakers agreed to give the president more powers to reform the post-Soviet economy.
Patriotism runs deep here because Ukraine for three centuries was subordinate to Moscow - first as a part of the Russian empire, then as a Soviet republic.
Religion has always been closely linked to politics. The country's religious make-up is a tangle of three Orthodox churches - the Russian Orthodox branch, the independent church, and a third, tiny splinter church. A Roman Catholic minority and sprinkling of Jews and Protestants make up the balance.
Differences between the churches have occasionally turned physical, with parish members scuffling over ownership of church property.
Nationalist politicians made speeches yesterday, and about 100 Orthodox gathered at Volodymyr's grave site. ''The patriarch should be buried within Sofia. This is a holy place, it shouldn't be a museum where you sell all sorts of trinkets for dollars,'' said Leonila, a pensioner. ''Our government is to blame for all this. There is no law, there is no justice.''