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New Ukrainian Church Officially Recognized, Gains Independence From Russia

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I grants the Orthodox Church of Ukraine a decree of independence

ByJames MarsonJan

ISTANBUL—Orthodox Christianity’s foremost leader presented Ukraine’s new church with a decree of independence, ignoring Russian claims that its church has sole authority there and handing Ukraine a victory in its attempts to diminish Russia’s influence.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I granted the document to Metropolitan Epifaniy, who was elected leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine last month, during a liturgy at the St. George Cathedral here Sunday. Bartholomew’s office confirmed in October that he was planning to hand Ukraine its own church, the culmination of years of talks that intensified in recent months.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attended the service and hailed what he said was like “another act declaring Ukraine’s independence.” 

“God saw the struggle of the Ukrainian people for independence,” U.S.-backed Mr. Poroshenko said. “He heard our prayers.”

The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, which have claimed dominion over Ukraine for centuries, have denounced the move and said it would cause a split in Orthodoxy. 

A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church told Interfax news agency that it was a “black day” for Bartholomew, the “first among equals” of the leaders of around 300 million Orthodox believers. 

The Russian Orthodox Church, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the largest and wealthiest Orthodox church, has long vied with the Ecumenical Patriarchate for primacy. 

Ukraine’s efforts to obtain its own church have gained urgency since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s east that has cost over 10,000 lives. Ukrainian officials said the local arm of the Russian Orthodox Church was spreading pro-Russian propaganda, and many believers switched allegiance to a Ukrainian-led church called the Kiev Patriarchate even though it wasn’t recognized by other Orthodox churches. 

Bishops from the Kiev Patriarchate, the Russian church and another unrecognized church met in December to form the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and elected 39-year-old Epifaniy as their leader. Epifaniy switched between Ukrainian and Greek in a speech Sunday. “We were divided, but now we are united,” he said.

Ukrainian political leaders and dozens of Ukrainians, some wearing traditional embroidered shirts known as vyshyvankas, swelled the congregation at the ornate cathedral in Istanbul that is the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The presentation of the independence decree, known as a tomos, was met with cries of “Axios!” meaning “Worthy!” Then a Ukrainian voice called: “Glory to Ukraine!” to which compatriots gave the traditional response: “Glory to its heroes!”

The new church faces challenges in Ukraine and abroad. It aims to win over clergy and adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church has warned of potential bloodshed if Ukrainian authorities try to seize religious buildings that it uses, something Kiev says it doesn’t intend to do.

Abroad, Epifaniy and Bartholomew will now hope that others among the 14 independent Orthodox churches will recognize the new Ukrainian church. Moscow has urged them not to.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com


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