Ukraine Orthodox leaders approve break with Russian church

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center left, attends a closed-door synod of three Ukrainian Orthodox churches to approve the charter for a unified church and to elect leadership in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev on Saturday.
(Mikhail Palinchak / Associated Press)

Ukrainian Orthodox church leaders approved the creation of a unified church independent of Moscow on Saturday and elected a new leader to oversee the self-governing church, a move supporters say will push Kiev further away from Russia’s influence in the region.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has been advocating for the creation of the new church as he tries to move his former Soviet republic out of Moscow’s orbit, called Saturday’s election “a key element of Ukraine’s independence” and national security.

“This is a matter of our Ukrainian statehood,” Poroshenko told the council, which was held in a closed-door synod in Kiev’s golden-domed St. Sophia Cathedral as crowds gathered in the snow-packed streets outside to await results. Poroshenko was not a voting member of the council.

“We are finally gaining spiritual independence that can be compared to the political independence. We’re breaking the ropes that tied us to the empire,” he said.


The formation of the new church and the election of the new leader came two months after the foremost leader of Orthodox Christianity, Bartholomew I, the patriarch of Constantinople, granted Kiev permission to create a self-governing church that would hold equal status to the Russian Orthodox Church in the world’s Orthodox branches. Bartholomew, who is based in Istanbul, is considered the “first among equals” of leaders in Orthodox Christianity, the second largest Christian church in the world after Catholicism.

Moscow has vehemently opposed the creation of a separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church, saying it would split Orthodox believers in a region that has had strong religious and historical ties dating back to 988, when a Kievan Rus prince adopted Christianity.

Kirill, the Moscow Patriarch, severed ties with Constantinople after Bartholomew’s October decision.

Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said the Kremlin would “protect” Orthodox followers. The comment echoed Putin’s similar statements about Russian speakers just before Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed separatist militias in eastern Ukraine, where war continues. More than 10,300 people have been killed in the conflict.

Moscow has warned that the breakup of the church could lead to more violence between the countries.

On Friday, the Moscow Patriarch released a statement saying it had written letters to heads of the world’s churches, the United Nations and the leaders of France and Germany to draw attention to what it said were violations against the Moscow church’s priests in Ukraine.

“The authorities of the secular state of Ukraine, who have been interfering in the affairs of the church for quite a while, have recently moved to exert brutal pressure on bishops and priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which makes it possible to say that a large-scale persecution has begun,” the statement said.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate along with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church are two branches in Ukraine that did not recognize the Russian Orthodox Church’s authority. Neither were sanctioned by Constantinople but have now joined together as the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

More than 200 representatives from three branches of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, including two members from the Moscow Patriarchate, elected Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, a little-known 39-year-old theology professor.

“We as a church, we try to be independent from Moscow not because we don’t like Russia,” Archbishop Yevstraty Zorya of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate said in an interview. “But we see how the Russian Empire has for centuries used the Orthodox Church in our land as a tool of imperial policy.”

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate along with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church are two branches in Ukraine that chose to separate from the Russian Orthodox Church’s authority. Neither one was sanctioned by Constantinople but have now joined together as the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

All three share the same theological doctrine rooted in the Greek Orthodoxy that broke away from Catholicism in 1054, known as the Great Schism.

Almost 70% of Ukrainians describe themselves as Orthodox. Many of them hailed the historical move on Saturday.

The Russian Orthodox Church controls about 12,000 parishes throughout Ukraine — more than twice the number of parishes of the other two Orthodox branches in Ukraine.

Many congregations switched to the unrecognized Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in the east with Kremlin-backed militias.

During his 18 years in power, Putin has brought the Kremlin closer to the church, and used Russian Orthodoxy as part of a one-church, one-country idea of nationalism. He has drawn on the conservative values of the church to contrast Russia to the decadent West’s liberalism.

Many Ukrainians, including Poroshenko, accused the Russian Orthodox Church of supporting Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Ukraine’s autocephaly marks a milestone in Poroshenko’s campaign promises. But critics have said Poroshenko’s government has used force and intimidation against priests and congregations wishing to stay loyal to the Moscow patriarch.

In early December, the Ukrainian Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, summoned more than a dozen priests from the Moscow patriarch for questioning as part of an investigation into “treason” and “incitement of religious hatred.” One of them was head of Pecherska Lavra in central Kiev, one of the holiest religious complexes in Ukraine.

Officials conducted an audit of the facilities’ 79 buildings and holy relics in a move that may signal the government’s decision to take away the centuries-old complex from the Russian Orthodox Church.

In another incident, police and intelligence officers entered the main Orthodox cathedral of the northern Ukrainian town of Ovruch on Dec. 3. The officers read a court order to astounded parishioners, closed the cathedral for service and searched everywhere, including the altar, an area no lay person may enter, said Father Anatoly Kapliuk.

“Of course, that was a sacrilege,” he said in a telephone interview. “I warned them, but they did not listen.”

He said the police confiscated religious brochures that allegedly “incite religious hatred.” Later, he was summoned for questioning at Ukraine’s security services. Ukraine’s security services said Thursday priests loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church had sided with “pro-Russian militants” to organize “provocations” in Kiev.

The pressure from the Ukrainian security service was “a chain of events planned to force our clergy to take part in the council that is illegitimate from the church’s point of view,” Archbishop Kliment, the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine’s main spokesman, said in an interview.

The final step toward the creating of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will come on Jan. 6, when Bartholomew will issue the Tomos granting the new church independence.

Times special correspondents Ayres contributed from Moscow and Mirovalev from Kiev.