KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's president on Thursday hailed the announcement by Orthodoxy's Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople that it will move forward with granting Ukrainian clerics independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, while the Russian church denounced the decision.
The Istanbul-based patriarchate, whose head Bartholomew I is considered the "first among equals" of Orthodox church leaders, said it was removing its condemnation of leaders of schismatic Orthodox churches in Ukraine, a step toward establishing an ecclesiastically independent — or autocephalous — church in Ukraine.
Since the late 1600s, the church in Ukraine has been formally under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
President Petro Poroshenko has pushed for the church in Ukraine to be independent.
"For us, our own church is a guarantee of our spiritual freedom," Poroshenko said. "I guarantee that the Ukrainian state will respect the choice of those who decide to stay in church structures retaining unity with the Russian Orthodox Church."
The Russian church, the world's largest Orthodox grouping, was furious.
"With its actions, Constantinople is crossing a red line and catastrophically undermines the unity of global Orthodoxy," said Alexander Volkov, a spokesman for Russian church leader Patriarch Kirill. The Russian church has said it will no longer regard the Ecumenical Patriarch as first among equals if the Ukrainian church is recognized as legitimate.
Ukraine currently has three Orthodox communities — those that stay under Moscow's control and two schismatic churches.
The leader of the larger of the two schismatic churches, Patriarch Filaret, said he would call a council with the leadership of the other schismatic church to choose a leader of the autocephalous church. Moscow-loyal church representatives can attend if they desire, he said.
"Moscow wants that there would be resistance; we, Ukrainians, don't want resistance," he told a briefing.
Recognition of a Ukrainian church that is not under Moscow's jurisdiction has been an increasingly fraught issue amid the high tensions over Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. It strikes at the belief of many Russians that Moscow is the "Third Rome," the heir to Rome as Christianity's center.
The move could benefit Poroshenko in next year's elections.
"The creation of a local Ukrainian church has been one of Poroshenko's main slogans going into the 2019 presidential election," said Volodymyr Fesenko, an analyst at Ukraine's Penta think-tank.
Jim Heintz in Moscow and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed.
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