Thousands of Orthodox believers who participated in a controversial religious procession organized by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate gathered in Kyiv to mark the 1,028th anniversary of Kievan Rus’s acceptance of Christianity.
Nearly 9,000 people gathered on Volodymyr Hill on July 27, after marching for weeks from across the country to the capital.
The event was held under tight security following threats of violence from Ukrainian nationalist groups who support the rival Kyiv-based Orthodox patriarchate and see the procession as a provocation by Moscow.
More than 1,000 people, divided into two columns, have been marching since the beginning of the month toward Kyiv from the country’s west and east in processions led by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate -- an affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The event was promoted by Patriarch Kirill, the Moscow-based head of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a day of Orthodox religious unity.
Speaking to journalists in Kyiv, however, Ukrainian Orthodox Church Patriarch Filaret said the procession aims “to use a church guise to incite unrest, to destabilize Ukrainian society, and to set one church against another.”
Some Ukrainian officials and activists have said the marches are a Moscow-orchestrated plot to incite unrest and assert that the rights of ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers, and members of the Moscow-based church are restricted in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Orthodox Christian majority is split between three major churches: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on July 26 said the procession would not be allowed to march into Kyiv because of security concerns after two grenades and several fake mines were found on the marchers’ route in the western outskirts of the city.
Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its active involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine over the past two years have produced high tensions between the two countries.