Ukrainian Orthodox Church Officially Gains Independence From Russian Church

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church officially gained independence on Saturday, with the signing of a decree that marked its separation from the Russian church that it has been tied to for centuries.

Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I signed the decree of independence, or tomos, in Istanbul, formalizing a split that has angered Moscow amid a broader political conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

"The pious Ukrainian people have awaited this blessed day for seven entire centuries," Bartholomew I said in his address at the Patriarchal Church of St. George.

The Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly denounced the creation of an independent Ukrainian church and severed ties with Istanbul, the historical seat of the Orthodox faith, after Bartholomew I approved the Ukrainian church's request for autocephaly, or independence, last October.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attended Saturday's signing, which many in his country see as one more step toward independence from Moscow, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports. Poroshenko, who is up for re-election at the end of March, has made the creation of the independent church a part of his campaign platform. Joining Poroshenko was 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius, who was elected last month as head of the new Ukranian Orthodox Church.

Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians have belonged to a unified church for centuries. Moscow argues it has had legal authority over Ukrainian churches since 1686, according to the BBC.

"In many circles in Ukraine, the idea of the creation of an independent Orthodox Church independent from Moscow is the culmination of Ukraine's political independence," Edward Siecienski, an associate professor of Byzantine theology at Stockton University in New Jersey, told NPR last month. "You can't have one without the other."

The Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church controls the majority of churches in the country — 12,000 to the new church's 5,000, the BBC reports. Ukrainian clerics will now be forced to choose between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kiev Patriarchate, amid continued conflict between the two countries in eastern Ukraine.

Russian church leaders and spokespeople have called the split "anti-canonical," according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. Russia has compared the independence of the Ukrainian church to the split between Eastern and Western Christianity a thousand years ago, NPR's Lucian Kim reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen part of his role as safeguarding the Orthodox faith, with frequent visits to churches and monasteries broadcast on state television, Kim reports. The proximity between the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian army has driven a wedge between the Russian church and Ukrainian believers.

Tensions escalated in the religious and political schisms after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, following the ouster of a pro-Moscow president in Kiev. The war in eastern Ukraine that erupted between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists after the annexation has left more than 10,000 people dead.

In November, Russia intensified the conflict when it seized three Ukrainian vessels and 24 sailors and security officers near Crimea. Russia accused Ukraine of illegally entering its waters, but Ukraine said its two navy ships and tugboat were following international maritime rules.

Ukraine's split may have caused the Russian Orthodox Church to lose 30 to 40 percent of its 150 million members, as The New York Times reported last month.

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