The Ukraine Orthodox crisis deepens

By Brian Cooper

ECUMENICAL Patriarch Bartholomew’s recent actions have caused profound division within the world Orthodox family.

These include the inauguration of a new ‘Orthodox Church of Ukraine – Kiev Patriarchate’, his ending – after three centuries — of the Russian Orthodox’s [Moscow Patriarchate] canonical authority over majority Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and Ukraine President Poroshenko’s campaign of intimidation against the latter.

On Sunday 6 January 6 – the Orthodox Christmas Eve — at St George’s Cathedral in Istanbul (the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate), Bartholomew gave his signed ‘tomos’, a decree recognising the new autocephalous [independent] Ukrainian Orthodox Church, to its leaders, with Ukraine President Poroshenko present.

The latter, aiming to break all links with Russia, had made the creation of this new church in an historic break with the Moscow Patriarchate, part of his campaign platform for March’s presidential election.

Although the Moscow-aligned Church had striven for reconciliation between Kiev and Moscow, Poroshenko denounced it as a ‘Kremlin tool’, and had worked closely with Patriarch Bartholomew to effect the change that was strongly acclaimed by Ukrainian nationalists.

Why the Ecumenical Patriarch opted to back his political agenda remains unclear – except in terms of ongoing rivalry with the Russian Patriarch.

Russian Patriarch Kirill denounced the move, totally rejecting on theological and historical grounds Bartholomew’s right to take these decisions – rejection backed by several other Orthodox Churches.

The Russian Church, the largest in world Orthodoxy, has severed all spiritual and ecclesial ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch. Other Orthodox leaders, backing Kirill, fear Bartholomew’s decision is setting a precedent for recognising other schismatic bodies.

Bartholomew formed the new church – strongly nationalist and closely aligned to the Ukraine state – by uniting two erstwhile schismatic groups: the small Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church [UAOC], a breakaway on Tsarism’s collapse, and the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian Orthodox Church [Kiev Patriarchate], which broke from Russian Orthodoxy when the USSR dissolved.

Bartholomew ended a decades-long anathema upon their leaders, Metropolitans Makariy and Filaret respectively. The two Churches’ ‘Unification Council’ at Kiev’s St Sophia Cathedral on 15 December chose as their primate Metropolitan Epiphanius, who at once proclaimed Filaret life ‘patriarch emeritus’. They plan to govern the new church jointly.

The Ukraine Orthodox Church [Moscow Patriarchate] under Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev, Ukraine’s largest Orthodox body, has 12,000 parishes, 10,400 clergy, 211 monasteries and 4,720 monastics: they are coming under pressure to join the new Kiev Patriarchate.

Its leader, Metropolitan Epiphanius, stated: “We understand the ‘Russian Orthodox Church’ in Ukraine will continue to exist and there will be many who will want to stay there, but we have nothing against them.”

Local congregations can choose their allegiance freely. However, Poroshenko’s intimidation campaign is seeing its hierarchs and clergy harassed, even detained, by police, and sacred sites threatened with confiscation.

Kiev’s Monastery of the Caves, its headquarters and world-famous pilgrimage centre, is now blocked by heavy security.

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