Kremlin concerned as Russian church splits with Constantinople
Orthodox schism looms over Ukraine's bid for church independence
Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of external relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate and permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
The Kremlin has expressed “great concern” over a split between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which Moscow says spells the end for the latter’s role as “first among equals” in the Orthodox world.
The Russian church announced on Monday that it was breaking all ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate in retaliation for its decision last week to move towards recognising a Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from Moscow.
Many Ukrainians and their political leaders hope the creation of an independent church will help end centuries of Russian domination and weaken the pervasive influence of a country that is waging an undeclared war against Ukraine.
“Of course, we are watching very closely and with great concern how relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate are developing. This is worrying for us,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.
“We hope that after all wisdom will prevail. At the same time, of course, we hope that all the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church will be respected,” he added.
It remains to be seen how deep and long-lasting the split in the Orthodox world becomes, but the decisions taken at a synod in Istanbul last Thursday were historic for the church’s affairs.
The synod supported the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to grant independence to a national Ukrainian church, and formally reinstated two Ukrainian figureheads whom Moscow had excommunicated.
The Constantinople Patriarchate also reclaimed jurisdiction over Ukraine’s churches, 332 years after it handed that power to Moscow – a move that one outraged spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church surprisingly compared to the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Metropolitan Hilarion, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, said on Tuesday: “We now face a new church reality.”
“We no longer have a single co-ordinating centre for the Orthodox Church, and we should clearly recognise that. The Constantinople Patriarchate has destroyed itself as that kind of centre.”
The Kiev Patriarchate now plans to hold a special council with the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and willing clerics from the Moscow Patriarchate to form a unified, national Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The leader of that church, expected to be Kiev Patriarch Filaret, would then receive a formal “tomos” or decree of church independence from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – possibly as soon as in the second half of November.
The Russian Orthodox Church has warned that violence is likely to erupt in Ukraine when, as it predicts, people there try to seize monasteries and other church property controlled by the Moscow Patriarchate.
Ukraine has increased security at key religious sites, and last week the Kremlin warned that it would “defend the interests” of Russian church believers if they faced any danger.