The Ukrainian Orthodox church won approval from the patriarch in Istanbul to break away from the Moscow patriarchy and become an independent church on October 11, creating a schism that deepens the rifts between Ukraine and Russia and could end in violence.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko applied to the head of the Orthodox Church based in Istanbul for autocephaly, or independence, and a ruling to separate the Ukrainian church from the Russian one in April this year, but the Russian clergy fiercely opposes the biggest split in Christianity since 1054 when the Catholic and Orthodox churches divided.
At a three-day synod presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, the seat of the Orthodox Church, Ukraine’s request for independence was endorsed. The synod said it will “proceed to the granting of Autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine,” a statement said, reports Reuters.
“The decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarch and Synod finally dispelled the imperial illusions and chauvinistic fantasies of Moscow,” Poroshenko said after the announcement. “It is a question of our independence, national security, statehood, a question of world geopolitics.”
The decision is a boon for Poroshenko, who is due to stand for re-election in March next year and is currently trailing in the polls behind his rival opposition leader, former prime minister and head of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party Yulia Tymoshenko. Poroshenko has been playing the “tough leader in a time of war” card and attacking Russian interests by banning fights, books and TV broadcasters to bolster his patriot image.
As part of the decision the synod rehabilitated the Ukrainian patriarch who was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox church for breaking away in the early 1990s.
The Moscow Church promised "harsh response after Constantinople actions concerning Ukraine". The Moscow Church is scheduled to meet on October 15 to discuss its reaction.
The Russian Orthodox Church said it would break eucharistical relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and create a schism in the 300mn strong Orthodox Church for the first time in a millennium.
Kyiv accuses the Russian Orthodox Church of acting as an agent for the Russian government in the conflict between the two countries. While the Russian Church has not been overtly political during the dispute it is close to the Kremlin and has openly supported President Vladimir Putin in the past.
The Ukrainian population is divided between the Ukrainian led part of the church and those worshipers that look to Moscow for spiritual guidance, with the Russian church in the minority.
Observers worry that the split will become violent as several of the countries’ most holy sites and churches will be claimed by both sides. Russian Cossacks, who are Russian orthodox conservatives, have already threatened to respond.
The last item on the ecumenical patriarch’s edict anticipates the reaction.
“To appeal to all sides involved that they avoid appropriation of Churches, Monasteries and other properties, as well as every other act of violence and retaliation, so that the peace and love of Christ may prevail,” the edict concludes.
Ukraine and Russia trace their Orthodox Christian roots to Volodymyr the Great, the prince whose baptism in 988 in Kiev led to the christianisation of the region known as the “Kievan Rus”.