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Split on Christmas Eve: Ukraine’s Orthodox Church gets independence decree from Constantinople

Just one day before Orthodox Christmas, an official decree marking the independence of Ukraine’s new church was granted by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to the head of the Kiev-established entity.

Bartholomew I of Constantinople has handed over the so-called tomos – a Patriarch’s decree proclaiming the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine formally independent of the Russian Orthodox Church – to Metropolitan Epifaniy, the self-styled head of the new entity.

It has been brought back to Ukraine on Orthodox Christmas Eve. On January 7, Christmas Day, a celebration and rally will take place in Kiev.

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The Ecumenical Patriarch, who is considered ‘first among equals’ in the Orthodox world, said the Ukrainians “have awaited this blessed day for seven entire centuries.” He claimed they could now enjoy “the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention,” as cited by AP.

The tomos was signed in the presence of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who traveled to Istanbul specifically for the occasion. He was joined by the 39-year-old Epiphanius, the self-styled Patriarch of the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Poroshenko, who came to power following the Western-backed 2014 coup, began to push for the Ukrainian Church’s independence from the Moscow Patriarchy several months before the 2019 presidential elections. Now, nurturing the Orthodox Church of Ukraine remains part of his electoral campaign.

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The Russian Orthodox Church vehemently opposed the creation of Ukraine’s new entity, calling it unlawful under canonic law and devastating for the centuries-old spiritual bond between Moscow and Kiev. Russian Patriarch Kirill has recently accused Ukraine of “blatant interference in church affairs” that would lead to a “civilizational catastrophe.” 

The decision may the be beginning of a lasting schism in the global Orthodoxy and risks triggering conflicts among Ukraine’s Orthodox believers, observers say. “What happened due to the help of Patriarch Bartholomew is a legitimized split that existed during the last 30 years,” said Archbishop Kliment, spokesperson of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

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“Instead of healing the schism, instead of uniting Orthodoxy, we’ve got an even bigger rift that exists exclusively for political reasons,” he maintained.

What Kiev is doing is “very dangerous because if, let’s just say, a number of autocephalous churches do not accept the Ukrainian new church, then we will have a schism, a break,” Fr Mark Tyson, an American Orthodox priest and rector of a West Virginia-based church, explained to RT. “This is the most serious question we’ve faced in close to a thousand years,” he added.

Many Ukrainian Orthodox believers belong to the Moscow church and “show no sign” of desire to stick with the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine, said Alexander Dvorkin, professor of Church History at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University. Meanwhile, the new church will not be completely independent as it is likely to be “[manually] controlled by Constantinople.”

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