Ukraine to Pick Church Head, Securing Dramatic Split From Russia

(Bloomberg) -- Ukrainian Orthodox Christian priests selected a 39-year-old bishop to lead their newly independent church, cementing a split from the previous Russian hierarchy in a step that’s further straining relations between the two former allies.

Ukraine to Pick Church Head, Securing Dramatic Split From Russia

Priests gathered in Ukraine’s most prominent 11th century St. Sophia Cathedral early Saturday and for eight hours celebrated the liturgy and discussed the status of the new church and elected as leader the Metropolitan of Kiev and Ukraine Epifaniy, also known as Serhiy Dumenko.

The move, sanctioned in October by the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Istanbul, is the latest step in Ukraine’s efforts to free itself from its neighbor’s orbit. Ties have disintegrated since protesters booted out the country’s Kremlin-backed leader in 2014, starting a chain of events that’s rekindled memories of the Cold War.

"What kind of church is this?" said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who participated in the assembly and went to speak to thousands of people outside the cathedral to present the Metropolitan. "This is a church without Putin."

Since the revolution, Russia led by President Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea from Ukraine and fomented a conflict near the two nations’ border. Most recently, it fired on Ukrainian naval vessels it accuses of illegal border crossing in the Azov Sea, seizing them along with their crews in a move that’s been condemned by the West.

Ukraine to Pick Church Head, Securing Dramatic Split From Russia

Ukraine has followed the U.S. and the European Union in sanctioning Russia in recent years and last month banned entry to Russian males aged 16-60. Poroshenko is portraying the church schism as an “issue of national security” and is hoping it will help revive his rock-bottom popularity before elections in March. His campaign slogan is “Army, language, faith.”

“The independent status of the Ukrainian church is another declaration of independence,” he said this month. Poroshenko and Epifaniy will travel to Constantinople Jan. 6 to get the official certificate for the new church.

"I guarantee that the state will respect the choice of those who will remain in the church structure which will continue to be united with Russian Orthodox Church," Poroshenko said when presenting the leader of the independent church. "In the same way I guarantee that the state will protects the rights of priests and congregation who will chose to leave the church of Moscow Patriarchy."

Unesco Site

Choosing a leader for a new independent church to end the dominance the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy isn’t just a matter of regional political tensions. While strained relations have accelerated the process, the move marks the culmination of almost three decades of government and diplomatic efforts.

The Russian Orthodox Church has about 12,000 parishes across Ukraine and a monastery listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, though support has weakened amid the recent conflict, which has killed more than 10,000 people. Ukraine says most parishes will convert to the new structure though Moscow contests the extent of the likely swing.

For Russia, as well as ceding property and influence, the split essentially means losing the spiritual home of its own church, in Kiev, where the state of Kievan Rus’ adopted Orthodoxy in the 10th century, long before Russia became a separate country.

“The Russian Orthodox Church isn’t the Russian state -- it’s bigger than Russia and Ukrainian orthodoxy is part of Russian orthodoxy,” said Alexander Volkov, spokesman for Russian Patriarch Kirill. “That’s why this attempt to take away the Ukrainian church from the Russian church is a spiritual, historical and religious tragedy.”

Saturday’s vote on Ukraine’s new church leader will take place in Saint-Sofia Cathedral in central Kiev. In a sign of the tensions around the issue, Ukraine’s SBU Security Service said it will step up safety measures in case of provocations aimed at inciting violence. Russia complains that priests loyal to its branch of the church are being harassed by the SBU.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.