Split on Christmas Eve: Ukraine’s Orthodox Church gets independence decree from Constantinople

Split on Christmas Eve: Ukraine’s Orthodox Church gets independence decree from Constantinople
Just one day before Orthodox Christmas, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I gave an official decree to the new Kiev-established religious entity, granting it the right to ‘self-rule.’

The Patriarch’s decree – known as tomos – was given to Metropolitan Bishop Epifaniy, the self-styled head of the new ‘church.’

It has been brought back to Ukraine on Orthodox Christmas Eve. On January 7, Christmas Day, a celebration and rally will take place in Kiev.

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The Ecumenical Patriarch, who is considered ‘first among equals’ in the Orthodox world, said the Ukrainians “have awaited this blessed day for seven entire centuries.” He claimed they could now enjoy “the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention,” as cited by AP.

The tomos was signed in the presence of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Metropolitan Epifaniy, who traveled to Istanbul specifically for the occasion.

Poroshenko, who came to power following the Western-backed 2014 coup, began to push for the Ukrainian Church’s independence from the Moscow Patriarchy several months before the 2019 presidential elections. Now, nurturing the Orthodox Church of Ukraine remains part of his electoral campaign.

The creation of the new entity has been vehemently opposed by the only canonical, internationally recognized Orthodox church in the country – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is a constituent part of the Moscow Patriarchate. 

The Russian Orthodox Church called the new religious organization unlawful under canonic law, warning that it would have devastating impact on the centuries-old spiritual bond between Moscow and Kiev. The state’s involvement in the process is seen as particularly destabilizing. Russian Patriarch Kirill recently accused Poroshenko of “blatant interference in church affairs” that would lead to a “civilizational catastrophe.”

The decision may the be beginning of a lasting schism in the global Orthodoxy and risks triggering conflicts among Ukraine’s Orthodox believers, observers say. “What happened due to the help of Patriarch Bartholomew is a legitimized split that existed during the last 30 years,” said Archbishop Kliment, spokesperson of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“Instead of healing the schism, instead of uniting Orthodoxy, we’ve got an even bigger rift that exists exclusively for political reasons,” he maintained.

Constantinople’s decision was met with criticism not only from the Moscow Patriarchate but by some other Orthodox churches as well. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East John X said it is “unreasonable to mend the schism [in Ukraine] at the cost of the unity of the Orthodox world.”

The whole issue should first have been assessed and discussed with all other Orthodox churches to avoid “dangers that would lead to peace and unity neither in Ukraine, nor in the Orthodox world,” John X said in a letter addressed to Bartholomew I.

What Kiev is doing is “very dangerous because if, let’s just say, a number of autocephalous churches do not accept the Ukrainian new church, then we will have a schism, a break,” Fr Mark Tyson, an American Orthodox priest and rector of a West Virginia-based church, explained to RT. “This is the most serious question we’ve faced in close to a thousand years,” he added.

Many Ukrainian Orthodox believers belong to the Moscow church and “show no sign” of desire to stick with the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine, said Alexander Dvorkin, professor of Church History at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University. Meanwhile, the new church will not be completely independent as it is likely to be “[tightly] controlled by Constantinople.”

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