(CNSNews.com) – In a development that may receive little attention in the West, but could have important geopolitical implications, three Orthodox Church bodies in Ukraine united at the weekend to choose a new head, cementing a split from Russian oversight that Ukraine’s president characterized as the righting of a wrong going back more than three centuries.
In the face of resistance from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill – who is viewed as close to President Vladimir Putin – the separate Ukrainian bodies joined to form the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).
They also elected a new leader, Metropolitan Epiphany – at 39, significantly younger than the heads of the three merging churches, who range in age from 74 to 89.
The decision aims to bring together Orthodox Christians who account for 70 percent of Ukraine’s population of 44 million.
Beyond church unity, however, President Petro Poroshenko called Saturday’s event in Kyiv a “sacred day” and a landmark moment for Ukraine’s full and final independence from Russia.
Speaking outside the “unity council” in the capital’s St. Sophia Cathedral, he cited the words of a 19th century national poet, Taras Shevchenko, and said Ukraine would no longer drink “Moscow’s poison from Moscow’s cup.”
“What is this church? This is a church without Putin,” he said. “This is a church without Kirill.”
“This is a church without prayer for the Russian authorities and Russian army – because the Russian authorities and Russian army kill Ukrainians,” Poroshenko continued. “But this is a church with God. This church is with Ukraine.”
The merger brings together some elements of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church/Moscow Patriarchate (UOC/MP), which remained under the Russian church’s jurisdiction after the Soviet Union disintegrated; the Ukrainian Orthodox Church/Kiev Patriarchate (UOC/KP), which was established in 1992 but wasn’t recognized by other Eastern Orthodox churches; and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which dates back to the 1920s, but was formally disbanded during the Soviet era before regaining state recognition in 1990.
Poroshenko said the issue was one of Ukrainian statehood.
“Finally, we gain spiritual independence, which can be compared with gaining political independence,” he declared. “We cut off the chains that bind us to the empire.”
The event came two months after the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based institution considered the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, approved the granting of autonomy (“autocephaly”) to the church in Ukraine, preparing the way for the separate bodies to become a single, recognized church.
That decision in Istanbul revoked a 1686 ruling that had placed the Kiev church under Moscow’s jurisdiction. Poroshenko, using language evoking the current crisis around Russia’s annexation of Crimea, said the decision amounted to declaring Moscow’s 17th century “annexation” of the Kyiv church to be illegal.
Angered by the move, Kirill’s church in Moscow declared a formal schism with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
A schism between Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a significant development, given that more than half of all Eastern Orthodox Christians fall under the Russian church (including those in other former Soviet states such as Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, the Baltics, and Central Asian republics.)
A day before the new church was formed in Kyiv, Kirill wrote letters to a range of religious and political institutions, including U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres, Pope Francis, the World Council of Churches, and the leaders of France and Germany, accusing Ukraine’s secular leaders of interfering in church affairs and laying the groundwork for “large-scale persecutions.”
The patriarch suggested Poroshenko was using the church issue to bolster support ahead of presidential elections scheduled for March. (Most opinion polls have him running in third or fourth place in a field of more than a dozen candidates.)
“We do not know what steps the authorities of Ukraine will take next, what actions they can dare to undertake to achieve their goal in a time left before the presidential elections,” Kirill wrote, adding that he fears “even more serious infringement on the rights and freedoms of the Orthodox Christians.”
The 72-year-old Kirill and Putin are seen to have a mutually supportive relationship. In 2012 Kirill was quoted as calling the years of Putin’s leadership a “miracle of God.” The following year the patriarch awarded Putin a prize honoring him for transforming Russia into “a powerful and strong country that has self-respect and is respected by others.”
Official Russian media outlets used terms like “non-canonical,” “schismatic” and “breakaway” to describe the newly-former entity in Ukraine.
They also disputed that the UOC/MP – the branch loyal to Moscow – had joined the new body at all, saying that only a couple of its officials had attended the unity council.