The spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in a four-hour ceremony in Istanbul on Sunday, formalizing a split with the Russian church to which it had been tied for more than four centuries.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader, handed a Tomos of Autocephaly containing a decree of independence to the newly appointed Metropolitan Epiphanius of Ukraine, cleaving millions of Ukrainians from the Russian Orthodox Church.
The independence effort outraged political and religious leaders in Russia. But for President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine, who stood before an elevated throne throughout the ceremony in Istanbul, the occasion was an affirmation of independence from Russian influence in his embattled country and a boost ahead of elections in March.
“Tomos for us is actually another act of proclaiming Ukraine’s independence,” Poroshenko said in an address. “For Ukrainians, our own Church is a guarantee of our spiritual freedom. This is the key to social harmony.”
Recognition of the church’s autonomy will resolve a problem for the many Ukrainians who had broken with Moscow and been declared noncanonical, he added.
The Ukrainian church had been under Moscow’s jurisdiction since 1686, when, under pressure from Russia, it abandoned allegiance to Constantinople, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church now known as Istanbul.
With that long-standing relationship threatened by tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Poroshenko, as well as nearly 200 bishops and other church figures, gathered in December in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, to choose the head of the future autonomous Ukrainian church. That decision sealed the country’s intention to sever religious ties from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Moscow patriarch, Kirill I.
“I support separating from the Russian church,” said Dmytro Khanenko, 20, a Ukrainian student who was following the ceremony on Sunday, “but I don’t like how politics is involved.”
Poroshenko expressed his appreciation on Twitter. “Thank you to the millions of Ukrainians around the world who prayed for the establishment of the Single Local Orthodox Church,” he wrote. “Thank you to the generation of Ukrainians who dreamed about this day.”