KIEV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian Orthodox Church seems on the verge of achieving independent status, a development straining ties between the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow.
Earlier this month, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople dispatched two envoys to meet with Church and governmental leaders in Kiev to help prepare the way for a newly autocephalous — self-headed — Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In a Sept. 7 announcement, the Patriarchate of Constantinople said that Archbishop Daniel and Bishop Ilarion would be working “within the framework of the preparations for the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.”
“The question [of independence] has already been decided,” Daniel said during a meeting Sept. 17 with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The archbishop stated that “the beginning of the process of declaring the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephalous has begun.”
The Russian Orthodox Church is strongly opposed to independence for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians. In response to the moves toward Constantinople’s recognition of independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow announced last week that he would no longer mention Patriarch Bartholomew in his prayers or celebrate liturgies together with him.
The patriarch of Constantinople is recognized as the “first among equals” by the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches, each with their own patriarch.
While Constantinople is the traditional and historical center of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Russian Orthodox Church has long exercised considerable influence and power, both because of its size and because of its closeness to Russian civil authorities.
Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are currently divided into three separate groups.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is under the authority of the Russian Church and has been the officially recognized Orthodox Church in the country.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate effectively declared itself independent from Moscow in 1992 and is considered by the Russian Church to be a schismatic group. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, refounded in 1990, is similarly seen as a breakaway group by the Russian Orthodox.
Patriarch Bartholomew’s plan to create a single, self-governing Church in the Ukraine, led by its own patriarch, is motivated by a desire to unify the country’s 30 million Orthodox Christians. The Russian Church sees the move as an infringement of its jurisdiction and authority.
The developments come as Ukraine still struggles politically following the 2014 annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Archbishop of Kiev, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has said the country remains in the midst of a “silent and forgotten war.”
According to the United Nations, the Ukrainian conflict has taken the lives of more than 10,000 people and has left 1.6 million people displaced.
Earlier this month, it was reported that religious leaders in the Ukraine have been the target of Russian hacking operations aimed at frustrating civil and religious independence in the country.
On Sept. 25, the U.S. State Department released a statement in support of Patriarch Bartholomew’s plans for an independent Ukrainian Church, calling him a respected “voice of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.”
“The United States respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs,” the statement said.
“The United States maintains unwavering support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the Russian occupation of Crimea. We also support Ukraine as it charts its own path and makes its own decisions and associations, free of external interference.”