THE President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, has hailed the election of the first Metropolitan of the country’s new Orthodox Church, a merger of two jurisdictions which will be independent from Moscow.
Nearly 200 bishops and priests gathered in St Sophia’s Cathedral in the capital, Kiev, on Saturday, to elect Metropolitan Epiphanius head of the Church. The move is the second-to-last step in the process of becoming an autocephalous, or independent, Church in global Orthodoxy.
Next month, Metropolitan Epiphanius, who is 39, will travel to Istanbul to receive the formal declaration of autonomy from the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
“This day will go into history as a sacred day . . . the day of the final independence from Russia,” President Poroshenko told the crowds outside the cathedral.
“Today is a truly historic event,” Metropolitan Epiphanius said. “We were able to overcome various temptations, disagreements, and unite in one Church.”
Quoting Ukraine’s national poet, President Poroshenko said: “And Ukraine will no longer drink, in the words of Taras Shevchenko, ‘Moscow’s poison from Moscow’s cup’.
“What kind of Church is this? This is a Church without Putin. What kind of Church is this? It is a Church without a prayer for Russian power and the Russian army that kills Ukrainians.”
The ongoing war against Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine prompted the move to establish ecclesiastical independence.
PAMembers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) pray at a protest against the granting of independence to the Ukranian Orthodox Church, last Friday
The Kiev Metropolis had been part of the Russian Orthodox Church since 1686, but, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian independence in 1991, tensions rose.
Orthodox believers split into three branches inside Ukraine: the Moscow Patriarchate, which remained loyal to Russia, and two smaller Orthodox communities — the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church — neither of which are recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church (Comment, 31 August).
The Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church have united to form the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Its autocephaly will be recognised by Patriarch Bartholomew in the New Year, when Metropolitan Epiphanius travels to Istanbul, together with President Poroshenko.
Churches and priests in the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine were ordered not to attend the meeting in Kiev — although two bishops did attend.
Clergy in the pro-Russian Church have been accused of refusing the last rites to Ukrainian soldiers killed in the fighting against the separatists.
The move towards independence has been strongly resisted by the Russian Orthodox Church, however: in protest, it cut some of its own ties with Patriarch Bartholomew, the historic first among equals of Orthodox patriarchs (News, 21 September).
Russian Church leaders warned earlier this year that, should Patriarch Bartholomew complete the granting of autocephaly to Ukraine’s Church, it would cause a full schism. While the Church in Constantinople is the historic centre of Orthodoxy, the Russian Church has by far the most worshippers.