Leader of Orthodox Church Risks Split in Eastern Christianity Over Independence for Ukraine’s Church

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, center right, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, sits with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, center left, prior to their meeting at the Patriarchate in Istanbul on Aug. 31, 2018. Orthodox Patriarchate’s Metropolitan Emmanuel of France says “there’s no going backwards” in granting Ukrainian clerics full ecclesiastic independence from the Russian Orthodox Church to which they have been tied for hundreds of years. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The head of the world’s Orthodox churches has thrown down the gauntlet to Moscow, risking a split in eastern Christianity after its rich and powerful Russian branch repeatedly supported controversial Kremlin policies and blocked church unity in Ukraine.

Faced with a stalemate among three rival churches there, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has declared all three of them valid and urged them to create one independent body for all Ukrainian Orthodox believers.

This step, an unusually decisive act in a very slow-moving church, promptly brought accusations of heresy from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has overseen Orthodoxy in Ukraine since 1686. Its Moscow Patriarchate also took the unusual step of breaking communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The Moscow Patriarchate, which claims over half of the world’s estimated 250 million to 300 million Orthodox believers, warned that Bartholomew’s step could lead to the biggest division in Christianity since the Great Schism of 1054 separated the Greek-speaking East based in Constantinople from Rome’s Latin-speaking West.

On its face, the dispute is about who can decide whether Ukraine can have its own “autocephalous” or autonomous church — the Orthodox world’s spiritual leader in Constantinople (the name the Orthodox still use for the city that became Istanbul in 1453) or Russian Patriarch Kirill in Moscow.

The dispute is fueled by a long-simmering political power struggle that challenges a key element of Kremlin influence. The Ukrainian church is so important to Moscow that computer hackers linked to the Kremlin reportedly tapped into the email accounts of Bartholomew’s closest aides to find out what they planned to do about it.

“Moscow has created this problem — they shot themselves in the foot by supporting (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, the proxy war in eastern Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea,” said Brandon Gallaher, an Orthodox theologian at the University of Exeter in Britain.

“If these things had not happened, this problem probably would have rumbled on for a long time more,” he told RNS.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a family of 14 independent regional churches that share communion and common doctrines. Unlike the pope in Roman Catholicism, the Ecumenical Patriarch is the spiritual leader of the churches but has limited practical authority over them.

One of his prerogatives is the right to declare a regional church autonomous, usually when a traditionally Orthodox country became independent of a larger neighbor.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate declared in April that it would do this for Ukraine and, after months of fruitless contacts with Moscow, reaffirmed that decision on Oct. 11.

The split in Ukraine has been brewing for over a quarter-century. When Ukraine broke free from Russia in 1991, some Ukrainian clerics set up their own Kiev Patriarchate to head a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow.

The Moscow Patriarchate maintained its long-established local branch, confusingly also called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and declared the breakaway church heretical.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate stood by the Moscow church as the only valid Orthodox body in Ukraine, recognizing neither the new church nor a smaller local one re-established after being banned in the Soviet era.

But as the years went on, the Moscow Patriarchate alienated Ukrainian nationalists by moving closer to the Kremlin, openly backing Putin and receiving major contributions from Kremlin-friendly oligarchs.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service, Tom Heneghan