Ukraine founds new Orthodox church to reduce Russian influence

‘It is a church without Putin,’ declares Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko

Newly elected Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine  Epifaniy Sergiy Dumenko conducts the first liturgy since the creation of a new Ukrainian church independent from Russia in the Saint Michaels Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kiev on December 16th, 2018. Photograph:  Genya Savilov

Newly elected Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine Epifaniy Sergiy Dumenko conducts the first liturgy since the creation of a new Ukrainian church independent from Russia in the Saint Michaels Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kiev on December 16th, 2018. Photograph: Genya Savilov

 

Kiev has hailed the foundation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a historic moment in the nation’s struggle to end centuries of Russian domination.

At a church synod in Kiev’s 11th-century St Sophia’s cathedral, bishops from different Orthodox denominations united to create the new church and elect Metropolitan Epifaniy (39) as its leader.

The council was attended by all senior clerics from the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, but only by two bishops from the Moscow Patriarchate – a bastion of Kremlin influence in Ukraine, where more than 10,300 people have died in four years of fighting against Russian-led militia.

“This is the day we finally secure our independence from Russia, ” Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko told thousands of people in a snowy St Sophia’s square on Saturday.

As they waved Ukrainian flags and chanted “Glory! Glory!” Mr Poroshenko quoted the country’s national bard, Taras Shevchenko, in saying that his country would no longer “drink Moscow poison from Moscow’s cup”.

“What kind of church is it? It is a church without Putin. It is a church without Kirill,” Mr Poroshenko declared, referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russian authorities

“It is a church with no prayers for the Russian authorities or for Russian troops. Because the Russian authorities and Russian troops murder Ukrainians. But it is a church that is with God and a church that is with Ukrainians.”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople – traditionally “first among equals” in the Orthodox world – granted Ukraine’s request for church independence in October and decreed an end to 332 years of Russian authority over Ukraine’s religious affairs.

The decision prompted Russia to sever ties with the Istanbul-based patriarchate, and to warn of more bloodshed in Ukraine over the control of monasteries now held by the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Kremlin has pledged to “defend the interests” of Moscow Patriarchate followers in Ukraine and accused Mr Poroshenko of meddling in religious affairs to boost his popularity before elections next March.

Some 4,000 members of the police force, national guard and military provided security in Kiev on Saturday, at a time of heightened tension in Ukraine.

Ten regions are under martial law following Russia’s capture last month of three Ukrainian naval ships and 24 crewmen in the Black Sea and, on Sunday, Mr Poroshenko warned that “the threat of Russian troops invading remains”.

He will go to Istanbul with Epifaniy to receive the decree of church independence – known as a tomos of autocephaly – from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on January 6th, the holiday of Epiphany.

Harsh reaction

“This is great, it has given us a real lift. We waited a long time for this and it was hard to believe it would actually happen,” said Kiev resident Heorhiy Pisarenko, after hearing the bells ring out in celebration from St Sophia’s.

“But we can expect a harsh reaction from Russia, especially at churches that were given over to the Moscow Patriarchate,” he added.

“We know that church unification is a big problem for Moscow,” said his wife, Tatyana.

“They will use hybrid methods, infiltration and the traditional Russian way of making it look as if local right-wingers are behind it – just like in 2014, but with even more aggression.”

They spoke close to Kiev’s Maidan square, the epicentre of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which pivoted the country towards the West and prompted Russia to annex Crimea and foment a war in the Donbas region.

“I’m not a religious person, so for me this is more of a political question,” said Yevgeniy Zamula (49), who travelled eight hours by bus with his family from the eastern city of Kharkiv to be in the crowd at St Sophia’s square.

“Church independence will reduce the influence of the enemy state here, because the Moscow Patriarchate preaches a line that is hostile to Ukraine,” added Mr Zamula, who served in an artillery unit near the frontline in 2015-2016.

The Moscow Patriarchate accuses Ukraine’s security services of pressuring its priests by questioning them and searching church premises, but Mr Poroshenko and Epifaniy insisted that no one would be forced to join the new church.

“The doors of our church are open to all,” declared Epifaniy, who said Moscow Patriarchate clerics and followers would be welcomed “with brotherly love and mutual respect”.