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Eastern Orthodox Leader Formalizes Split of Ukrainian Orthodox Church

After more than four centuries of allegiance to Moscow, move comes in bid to diminish Russia’s influence in Ukraine.

7 January 2019

The Patriarchate of Constantinople granted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine independence from Moscow in a ceremony held yesterday in Istanbul, The New York Times writes. After a mass to mark the Orthodox feast of Epiphany, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox churches, handed a formal decree granting independence, known as a "tomos of Autocephaly," to the newly appointed Metropolitan Epiphanius – or Epifaniy – of Ukraine.


Ukrainian Orthodox leaders had agreed on 15 December to create a new national Orthodox Church, and elected Epiphanius to lead it, according to Radio Free Europe.


While many believers had pined for such a move for centuries, the current drive for the independence of the Ukrainian church started in April, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the heads of Ukraine’s two, locally run Orthodox branches asked Bartholomew to declare the Ukrainian church autocephalous, or autonomous. This put them at odds with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the branch aligned with the Moscow patriarchy, Orthodoxy’s most powerful body.


Although the Russian church is the largest and most influential member of the Orthodox community, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the church’s ancient home, Istanbul, is regarded as the first among equals when it comes to church affairs. The latter’s recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox branches’ independence from Moscow in October elicited a furious response from Russia.


An Orthodox church in Lviv, Ukraine. Image by unclebumpy/Flickr.


In addition to its impact on geopolitical issues, the dispute has other secular implications, writes The Guardian: “The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, wants the Ukrainian church to stay within Moscow’s orbit, and has warned of ‘a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed’ over attempts to reassign ownership of church property.”


As quoted by The Guardian, Putin himself has said: “I think Bartholomew’s main incentive and motive is to subdue this territory and then start profiting from it.”  


Poroshenko, who attended the Istanbul ceremony yesterday, said “Tomos for us is actually another act of proclaiming Ukraine’s independence. For Ukrainians, our own Church is a guarantee of our spiritual freedom. This is the key to social harmony,” according to The New York Times.  


At the end of December, Ukrainian lawmakers passed a law intended to diminish the influence of priests from the Moscow Patriarchate-affiliated church, whom they accuse of being mouthpieces for pro-Kremlin propaganda and aiding separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine, Reuters wrote at the time.


In concrete terms, the new legislation mandates that a religious organization’s name should be reflective of situations such as whether its governing center is based abroad in a country at war against Ukraine or occupying its territory. That could mean that the Moscow-loyal church should change its name to the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.


Speaker Andriy Parubiy told parliament that the question goes beyond the religious sphere. “ … This is a question of the security and defense of our country,” he said, as quoted by Reuters. “There is no question that the church that blesses weapons, the killers of Ukrainians, should not bear the name of Ukraine.”  



  • Metropolitan Oleksandr, who defected from the Moscow Patriarchate and joined the new church, estimated that between 40 and 70 percent of Moscow Patriarchate churches would join the new church. However, the Moscow Patriarchate has expressed skepticism of those figures, pointing out that only one high-ranking church official other than Metropolitan Oleksandr has switched allegiances, according to Reuters.

  • Also at the end of December, the U.S. State Department released a statement saying that it had congratulated the new church's leader, Metropolitan Epifaniy, and pledging its “unwavering support for Ukraine,” as cited by RFE. "The right to religious freedom extends to all Ukrainians, including those choosing to join –  or not to join – the new Orthodox Church," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in the statement.

Compiled by Ioana Caloianu

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