Russian Orthodox Church warns of violence and schism over Ukraine
Moscow freezes ties with Constantinople patriarch over Kiev's independence bid
Pope Benedict XVI and Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew light candles at a Greek Orthodox cathedral in Istanbul, 2006. Photograph: Ecumenical Patriarchate/Reuters
The Russian Orthodox Church has warned that Ukraine’s bid for spiritual independence could lead to bloodshed and a schism in the eastern church, as it froze ties with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople – traditionally the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world.
Russian clerics are furious over Bartholomew’s apparently favourable response to Ukraine’s request that he grant full independence to its church, which is currently divided between rival patriarchates that are loyal to Moscow and Kiev.
The split occurred after a sovereign Ukraine emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991, and animosity between the country’s Moscow and Kiev patriarchates has intensified since the start of its bloody but undeclared war with Russia in 2014.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko appealed to Bartholomew in April for church independence – also known as autocephaly – and he says the formation of a national church is a crucial step in Ukraine’s bid to escape centuries of Russian domination.
Earlier this month, the Istanbul-based patriarchate said it was dispatching two bishops to Ukraine “within the framework of preparations for the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine”.
This followed apparently frosty talks in Istanbul – formerly Constantinople – between Bartholomew and Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill, under whom the church maintains very close ties with the Kremlin of president Vladimir Putin.
“If the church...is condemned as the church of the country-aggressor, as they say now, if it is deprived of legal rights, we can expect anything,” Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, warned on Saturday.
He told Russian television that in such an event “we can expect that the schismatics will take control over major monasteries...then, of course, the Orthodox faithful will defend these sacred places, so we can expect bloodshed.”
After a meeting of the holy synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on Friday, Hilarion said it had “decided to suspend joint performance of church services with the hierarchs of the Constantinople patriarchate, to suspend our membership in all structures which are headed or co-chaired by representatives of Constantinople.”
The synod also decided that Bartholomew would no longer be remembered in prayers during church services.
Hilarion said the moves were “roughly equivalent to cutting diplomatic ties” between the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople and emphasised that they “do not mean a complete break of the Eucharistic communion.”
He added, however, that if Bartholomew granted independence to the Ukrainian church it would result in schism and Moscow would no longer recognise his primacy.
“We will be forced to completely break the Eucharistic communion and this will mean the Constantinople patriarch, who often positions himself as the head of the planet’s 300 million Orthodox, will no longer be its head,” Hilarion said.