Patriarchate in Istanbul recognizes independence of Ukrainian Orthodox Church
ISTANBUL / MOSCOW
Ukrainian Orthodox Church's split from Moscow has been approved by the Fener Greek Patriarchate on Oct. 11 after years of heated debates between Istanbul, Moscow and Kiev.
The decision was made during a meeting held at the Fener Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul, a bishop said.
Metropolitan Emmanuel of France told the media the Ukrainian church’s request for independence was approved.
The move was condemned as “catastrophic” by Russia.
The Russian Orthodox Church said the Patriarchate had taken “catastrophic” decisions both for itself and global Orthodoxy.
“The Patriarchate of Constantinople has crossed a red line,” a spokesman for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, Alexander Volkov, said in televised remarks.
Russia had warned against allowing the Ukraine Church to sever its ties with Moscow, with the powerful head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, traveling to Istanbul earlier this year in a bid to dissuade the patriarchate.
However, Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomew said on Sept. 23 that he hoped for an independent Ukrainian Church soon “despite the current opposition.”
The issue is set to play a key role in Ukraine’s March 2019 presidential elections, with incumbent President Petro Poroshenko making independence from the Russian Orthodox Church - known as autocephaly - a key issue as he plans a re-election bid.
Poroshenko quickly hailed the decision of the Patriarchate, which is based in its historic home of Istanbul, the former Constantinople and once the capital of the Byzantine Empire before the Ottoman Muslim conquest of 1453.
“This is a victory of good over evil, light over darkness,” Poroshenko said in televised remarks, adding that Ukraine has been waiting for this “historic event” for more than 330 years.
The Patriarchate of Moscow, which is strongly backed by the Kremlin, argues it technically oversees most of Ukraine’s Orthodox parishes and has warned that independence would provoke a rift in global Orthodoxy.
The Ukrainian Church is currently split into three bodies, one technically overseen by the Patriarch of Moscow, a fact the Kiev government considers unacceptable given its ongoing war with Russia-backed rebels in the east.
An Istanbul synod meeting chaired by Patriarch Bartholomew, seen as the first among equals of Orthodox Church leaders, “decreed to proceed to the granting of autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine,” said an official statement read in Istanbul.
In another key move, the synod also agreed to reinstate the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Patriarch Filaret and Kiev Metropolitan Makariy to their canonical ranks following their excommunication in the dispute with Moscow.
“Thus, the above-mentioned have been canonically reinstated to their hierarchical or priestly rank,” said the statement after a meeting that began on Oct. 9.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from Moscow in the 1990s, with the charismatic Filaret a foremost proponent of a new independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In his first reaction, Filaret said the decision would allow his country to finally establish a united church in Ukraine and vowed to soon convene a meeting to address the issue of unification and elect a new patriarch.
“We want the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be united not only in appearance but also in spirit so that it could serve the Ukrainian people,” Filaret told reporters outside St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kiev.
The Moscow Patriarchate has already downgraded its ties with Bartholomew I over the affair, which it considers an unjust encroachment on its spiritual territory.
On Oct. 10, an influential Moscow Patriarch cleric went so far as to warn that parishioners will not hand over churches to a new Orthodox institution willingly.
“Of course, people will take to the streets and protect their sacred sites,” Hilarion, a bishop in charge of diplomacy at the patriarchate, was quoted as saying by Russian agencies at a religious congress in Kazakhstan.
Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and backed rebels who carved out two unrecognized breakaway regions in Ukraine’s mineral-rich east in a conflict that continues to this day.
Ukrainian authorities and many worshippers are wary of the influence of Kirill, a strong ally of President Vladimir Putin who has supported the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the separatists in the east of the country.