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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, greets people gathered Saturday to support independent Ukrainian church near the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine.

Sunday, December 16, 2018 1:00 am

Ukraine creates new Orthodox church

Priests vote for split from Russia, fanning flames

Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine – Ukrainian Orthodox leaders on Saturday approved the creation of a unified church independent of the Moscow Patriarchate and elected a leader to head that new church – a move that could exponentially raise tensions with neighboring Russia.

The vote, held at a closed-door synod in Kiev's St. Sophia Cathedral, is the latest in a series of confrontations between Ukraine and authorities in Russia, including President Vladimir Putin's government. Ahead of the vote, the Russian Orthodox Church called on the United Nations, the leaders of Germany and France, the pope and other spiritual leaders to protect Orthodox believers in Ukraine.

The leader of the new autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be Metropolitan Epiphanius, a 39-year-old bishop from the Kiev Patriarchate.

“God heard our appeals and gave us this anticipated unity,” Epiphanius told a crowd of thousands who gathered outside the cathedral Saturday to hear the news. He stressed that the new church's doors would be open to all, and encouraged Ukrainians to rally behind it.

Still spiritual leaders attending Saturday's synod couched their efforts to create an independent church in patriotic rhetoric. Father Sergei Dmitriev said – given Ukraine's ongoing conflicts with Russia – “we should have our own church, not an agent of the Kremlin in Ukraine.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has made the creation of a new church a key campaign issue, attended the synod as a non-voting observer.

“Ukraine was not, is not, and will not be the canonical territory of the Russian church,” Poroshenko told the gathering, adding that creating an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church was now a matter of national security.

“This is a question of Ukrainian statehood,” Poroshenko said. “We are seizing spiritual independence, which can be likened to political independence. We are breaking the chains that tie us to the (Russian) empire.”

Representatives of Ukraine's three Orthodox Churches attended the synod, but only two from the branch loyal to Moscow showed up. One Russian bishop on Saturday compared those two representatives of the Moscow-backed church to Judas.

The newly formed community is expected to receive independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based institution considered the so-called “first among equals” of leaders of the world's Orthodox Churches.

Since the late 1600s, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine had been a wing of the Russian Orthodox Church rather than being ecclesiastically independent. Many Ukrainians, however, resented the implication that Ukraine was a vassal of Russia.

The move Saturday raises deep concerns about what will happen to the approximately 12,000 churches in Ukraine that were under the Moscow Patriarchate.