Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the leading authority in Orthodox Christianity, has welcomed the creation of an Orthodox church in Ukraine independent of Moscow.
Bartholomew expressed “great joy and satisfaction” in a statement late on December 15.
Earlier on December 15, a council of Orthodox bishops in Kiev created the new Ukrainian church at a historic synod in Kiev’s 11th-century Saint Sophia Cathedral, ending more than 300 years of Moscow domination.
The council chose 39-year-old Metropolitan Yepifaniy, whose secular name is Sergiy Dumenko, to lead the new church.
As reported by the Agence France-Presse (AFP), Yepifaniy wrote a paper in 2015 in which he accused the Kremlin of using Ukraine’s Orthodox church (loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate) to stifle his country’s independence.
He is close to the patriarch of Kiev, Filaret, who was excommunicated by Moscow for starting a dissident church in Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Batholomew, considered the “first among equals” of Orthodox patriarchs, rehabilitated Filaret only last October.
In his message on December 15, Bartholomew invited Yepifaniy to Istanbul to receive the official decree confirming the establishment of his church.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been a vocal supporter of the new church.
According to AFP, ties between Russia and Ukraine have broken down since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 following a pro-Western uprising in Kiev.
In a separate report, the Independent noted that several thousands of Ukrainians gathered outside the Cathedral from early in the morning on December 15. It was several hours before President Petro Poroshenko, the main architect of the process, emerged to break the news and present the new head of the Church, Metropolitan Epifaniy (Sergiy Dumenko).
“It’s here,” Poroshenko said. “This day has already gone into history as a sacred day, the day we created an autocephalous local Orthodox Church. It is a day of final independence from Russia.”
The Unification Council brought together bishops from two hitherto-breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox churches, and 10 breakaway bishops from what was until recently the only canonical church in Ukraine, the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
It took the Council several hours of to elect Metropolitan Epifaniy as leader of the new unified church. The remarkably young 39-year-old is considered to be the right-hand man of the head of the Kiev-backed Patriarchate, Patriarch Filaret. The divisive Filaret chose not to stand, reportedly following interventions from Constantinople.
But Moscow and the Moscow-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church oppose the unification.
In a recent interview with The Independent, Archbishop Kliment, a senior representative for the Moscow-backed church described the moves as “unprecedented, asset-grabbing schemes” that belonged in the Soviet period. He claimed the government would now look to arrest control of Kiev’s Pechersk Lavra monastery, the spiritual centrepiece of Orthodoxy.
The Russian Orthodox Church responded immediately to Saturday’s Unification Council by announcing that the new church was not canonical.
“The Russian Orthodox Church will now lose up to a half of its parishioners,” wrote Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Twitter. “What was built over hundreds of years has been destroyed by Putin and his idiots over four years. Putin is an enemy of the Russian nation.”