KIEV, Ukraine — The Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow has cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, claiming his recognition of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine departed from Orthodox Christian norms.
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who heads foreign relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, said Russian Orthodox leaders decided to “break the Eucharistic communion” in response to actions it called “lawless and canonically void.”
“The Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t recognize those decisions and won’t fulfill them,” Archbishop Hilarion said in Belarus after a meeting of the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“The Church that acknowledged the schismatics has excluded itself from the canonical field of Orthodoxy.”
“We are hoping common sense will prevail and that the Constantinople Patriarchate will change its relations to existing Church reality,” Metropolitan Hilarion said.
Patriarch Bartholomew’s plan to create a single, self-governing Church in the Ukraine, led by its own patriarch, is motivated by a desire to unify the country’s 30 million Orthodox Christians, some observers say. The Russian Church sees the move as an infringement of its jurisdiction and authority.
There are about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The Orthodox Church split from the Latin Church in 1054.
The break comes in response to the decision of Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the “first among equals” leader of the global Orthodox Church, to issue a statement Oct. 11 confirming plans for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church and restoring ties with the previously schismatic Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate.
The announcement also removed the traditional right of the Russian Patriarch to ordain the metropolitan of Kiev, a move that observers predicted would be perceived as a deliberate slight to Moscow. The right dated back to a canonical letter first issued in the year 1686.
Archbishop Yevstratiy, chief spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate and whose rehabilitation by Constantinople contributed to the current break with Moscow, called the Russian synod’s decision a move toward “self-isolation.”
Writing in a Facebook post, he said, “Sooner or later this will be fixed and the Russian Orthodox Church will return to communion.”
According to the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Press Service, Archbishop Yevstratiy claimed that Orthodox Christians must choose whether to follow the Russian Orthodox “into schism” or “remain in unity with the Ecumenical Patriarch (Bartholomew I of Constantinople) through the Local Ukrainian Church.”
Among the backers of Constantinople’s move are Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is running for re-election in March 2019. He had previously asked the Patriarch of Constantinople to grant independence to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, The Associated Press reported.
While the recent push for an independent, autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine emerged as a serious movement in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it gained further momentum following the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and Russian backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in response to the unseating of Ukraine’s pro-Russia former president Viktor Yanukovych.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which claims traditional and canonical authority over the Orthodox community in Ukraine, has denied taking political sides in the conflict and said it has worked for peace in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian Church has also voiced concern that the Constantinople patriarchate’s actions could deepen religious divides in Ukraine and inspire breakaway branches to take over church buildings, Reuters reports.
Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, is the site of the 988 baptism of Vladimir the Great, the grand prince of Kiev, which resulted in the Christianization of Kyivan Rus’, a state whose heritage Ukraine, Russia and Belarus all claim.
Orthodox Christians in Ukraine have recently been divided into three separate groups.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate effectively declared itself independent from Moscow in 1992, and is considered by the Russian Orthodox to be a schismatic group. Until now, the other Orthodox Churches have recognized Ukraine as under Moscow’s jurisdiction and honored the excommunication.
The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, refounded in 1990, is similarly seen as a breakaway group.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is under the authority of the Russian Church and has been the officially recognized Orthodox Church in the country.