Istanbul (AFP) – Priests and politicians on Sunday celebrated the creation of an independent Ukrainian church, in a move that while popular in Kiev has been angrily condemned by the church in Russia.
The Istanbul-based Orthodox patriarch handed over a formal decree confirming the creation of an independent Ukrainian church to its leader, Metropolitan Yepifaniy.
The decree was signed at a landmark ceremony on Saturday, putting the formal stamp on a break with the Russian Orthodox church which has infuriated Moscow.
Patriarch Bartholomew handed over the document during an Epiphany service at St George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, completing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople’s recognition of the newly independent Ukrainian church.
“The sun always rises after the darkness of night…,” said Metropolitan Yepifaniy, the leader of the newly created church, during the service. “Once we were separated, but now we are united.”
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, who attended Saturday’s signing ceremony, was also present for the mass.
“Today’s event will remain in the history of our country…,” he said Sunday.
“As president, I guarantee on behalf of the state that Ukraine will respect the religious choice and freedom of religion of every citizen.”
The presidential election campaign in Ukraine is already underway, with the first round scheduled for March 31.
Poroshenko is widely expected to stand for re-election even though he has not yet confirmed he is running and his critics say he has done little to help the ruined economy or tackle the country’s rampant corruption.
But the most recent opinion polls suggest that Poroshenko’s stock is rising, and some observers attribute that to his prominent role backing the independent Ukrainian Orthodox church.
– ‘Politics… played a major role’ –
The document handed over by Patriarch Bartholomew is known as a Tomos decree. It grants autonomy to the Ukrainian Orthodox church, which until now had been overseen by Moscow for more than 330 years.
It also opens the way for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church to be recognised by other branches of orthodoxy and other churches.
The Constantinople Patriarchate, based in modern-day Istanbul and considered the first among equals in the Orthodox world, first agreed to recognise the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in October.
Then in December a historic council of Orthodox bishops in Kiev created the independent body and chose 39-year-old Metropolitan Yepifaniy as its head, whose secular name is Sergiy Dumenko.
He has been a longtime critic of Moscow’s religious influence in Ukraine.
The move has dealt a huge blow to Moscow’s spiritual authority in the Orthodox world, prompting it to cut all ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate in protest.
“The patriarchate in Moscow has for years been gnawing at the authority of the patriarchate of Constantinople,” said Dietmar W. Winkler, professor of church history at the University of Salzburg.
“With the decision to recognise the independence of the Ukrainian church Bartholomew is trying to reassert his supremacy in the orthodox church.
“Politics has played a major role for the recognition of the new Ukrainian church,” he added.
“If the political conflict between Russia and Ukraine is resolved, it will also be possible to find a compromise in the orthodox church.”
Ukraine and Russia have been at loggerheads since 2014, when Kiev street protests calling for Ukraine’s integration with Europe led to the fall of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia subsequently annexed Crimea and has supported Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine’s east in a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people.
Ukraine is home to millions of believers who belong to the Orthodox Church, but their loyalties are divided between the Kiev and Moscow patriarchates.