KIEV, Ukraine | Ukraine’s president announced Thursday that the Constantinople patriarchy has agreed to granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Ukrainian church has formally been part of the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries, so this step would be significant, splitting the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox denomination. It would also erode the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has seated itself as a leading player within the global Orthodox community.
Both the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian authorities are vehemently against the move and have warned Ukraine not to do it.
Yet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has made an independent church one of the primary slogans of his still-announced campaign to stay in office. The presidential election is set for next March and Poroshenko in recent polls was seen lagging behind his archrival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The Istanbul-based patriarch Bartholomew, considered “first among equals” of all Orthodox church leaders, previously took the first major step toward granting the Ukrainian church a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” or full ecclesiastic independence, when he removed condemnation of leaders of schismatic Orthodox churches in Ukraine earlier this year.
“A historic decision has been made to set up an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” Poroshenko said Thursday. “The text of the Tomos to grant the Ukrainian church independence has been approved.”
Ukraine currently has three Orthodox communities — one that stays under Moscow’s control and two schismatic churches.
Recognition of a Ukrainian church that is not under Moscow’s jurisdiction has been an increasingly fraught issue amid the high tensions over Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Those tensions escalated this week when Russian authorities rammed and seized three Ukrainian vessels and 24 seamen near Crimea on Sunday.
Orthodox communities will now have to convene at a date announced by Bartholomew I to formally form a new church, Poroshenko said Thursday.