A Russian Orthodox woman prays while gazing at an icon in an Orthodox parish in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2017. The Catholic Church respects the Russian Orthodox Church, its status in Russia and its right to handle its own internal affairs, Pope Francis said. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Catholic Church respects the Russian Orthodox Church, its status in Russia and its right to handle its own internal affairs, Pope Francis said.

As some Ukrainian politicians and leaders of some Ukrainian Orthodox communities work for the establishment of a unified Ukrainian Orthodox church completely independent of Moscow, Pope Francis told Russian Orthodox leaders that any Catholics taking a side on the matter “are not obeying the Holy See.”

Pope Francis met May 30 with a delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church led by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of external relations for the church. The Vatican published the pope’s remarks to the group June 2.

“The Catholic Church, the Catholic churches must not meddle in the internal affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church nor in political questions,” the pope said. “This is my attitude and the attitude of the Holy See today. And those who meddle are not obeying the Holy See.”

“The Catholic Church will never allow an attitude of division to be born from among its members. We will never allow this. I don’t want this,” the pope told the group.

“In Moscow, in Russia, there is only one patriarchate — yours,” he said. “We will never have another.”

In April, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, with the support of the Ukrainian parliament, along with the bishops of two Ukrainian Orthodox communities — the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church — formally petitioned Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to recognize the independence, or autocephaly, of a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

But the third community of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, usually referred to as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate because of its full unity with the Russian Orthodox Church, objected.

A statement April 25 from the office of Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, said the Eastern Catholic community sees the request as something “positive, but it is not participating and is not involved in this process because it is an internal affair of the Orthodox churches.”

Still, the statement said, “The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church considers this process an important step toward overcoming the divisions among the Ukrainian Orthodox churches and their isolation in the Orthodox world.”