Ukraine has taken a major step towards creating its own independent Orthodox church, separating it from Russia’s and deepening what is one of the most important splits in Orthodox Christianity in centuries.
Nearly 200 bishops, priests and other delegates gathered in Kiev’s gold-domed St. Sophia Cathedral Saturday for a council to elect a head and approve a charter for a new unified Ukrainian church, which will be independent from the Moscow Patriarchate that oversees the Russian Orthodox Church.
The move followed a decision in September by the Patriarch of Constantinople, considered Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s primary leader, to recognize the Ukrainian church’s right to autonomy.
The leader selected by the Kiev council on Saturday, 36 year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius, will now travel to Istanbul in January to receive the order granting independence.
Following the vote Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko said it was a “sacred day," hailing it as “the day of our final independence from Russia.”
Speaking in front of hundreds of people gathered on the square outside the cathedral, Poroshenko quoted Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko: “And Ukraine will no longer drink, Moscow’s poison from Moscow’s cup.”
The momentous step, which ends 332 years during which Ukraine’s church answered to Moscow, was prompted by the ongoing conflict set off by Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent war in eastern Ukraine. And it comes amid fresh tensions following Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian navy ships last month and Ukraine’s government’s decision to impose martial law in some regions, citing fear of invasion. In the past week, both sides have accused one another of preparing fresh military offensives.
The split between the Russian and Ukrainian churches has also caused a broader rupture within the Orthodox world. The Russian Orthodox Church in September said it would cut ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate, considered "first among equals" in Orthodoxy, after its leader, Patriarch Bartholomew accepted the Ukrainian request for independence.
The Ukrainian secession is a major blow to the Russian church, which now stands to lose an estimated 30-40 percent of its 150 million believers. Kiev is considered to be the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy and Russia has described the split now as the largest schism since 1054, when the Western and Eastern Christian churches broke.
The Russian Orthodox Church has denounced the breakaway effort as imposed by politicians. Last week, the head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill wrote an open letter to the United Nations and European leaders complaining of “large-scale persecutions” of its clergy in Ukraine.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday castigated Poroshenko’s church announcement, calling it a “show” and accusing him of preparing new “provocations” close to Crimea.
The new Ukrainian church seeks to combine clergy from two previously separate breakaway churches and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which had previously answered to Moscow. The new church has called on those from the Moscow-backed church to join its community.
“We are ready to accept them with brotherly love, mutual respect, and to forget all of the grievances that have accumulated so far," said Metropolitan Epiphanius at his first liturgy since being elected head of the new church.
It remains unclear how many will now come over to it and disputes over property now loom as the new Ukrainian church seeks to take control of sites currently controlled by the Moscow Patriarchate.