The spiritual head of the worldwide Orthodox Church has hosted Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for talks on Ukraine's bid to split from the Russian church, a move strongly opposed by Moscow.
The meeting was hosted on August 31 by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is also known as the Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Bartholomew is regarded as the "first among equals" of the world's estimated 300 million Orthodox Christian believers.
He is expected to rule in coming months on a Ukrainian appeal to cut spiritual ties with Moscow. But Kirill, who has strong connections with the Kremlin and is seen as an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is determined to prevent this from happening.
The church's decision is being made after four years of conflict between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,300 people and prompted many Ukrainians to turn away from the Moscow church.
The Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, who was present at the meeting between Bartholomew and Kirill, said afterwards that the main question they discussed was the "situation in Ukraine."
Emmanuel said that Bartholomew informed Kirill that he decided in April to begin "exploring all the ways in order to issue the autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church."
"We are implementing already this decision, and this was also reported to Patriarch Kirill," Emmanuel said.
Emmanuel told AP that the final step of granting Ukrainian clerics full ecclesiastic independence has not as yet been reached, but he said that the process of reaching that point is now under way and "there's no going backwards."
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Orthodox parishes in Ukraine split into three: most of the parishes belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate, while a few parishes joined the Kyiv Patriarchate led by Metropolitan Filaret. The smallest group called itself the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.
However, the situation has changed and now the number of faithful and parishes belonging to the Kyiv Patriarchate, coupled with supporters of autocephaly, far outnumbers pro-Moscow parishioners. Moscow still does not recognize Metropolitan Filaret.
Were Moscow to lose formal authority over a significant part of the Ukrainian church that is loyal to the Kyiv Patriarchate, and backed by Ukraine’s government, it would be seen as a blow to the prestige of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian influence in general.
The Associated Press reported this week that the Kremlin apparently is so concerned about the possibility of a split with the Ukrainian church that Russian intelligence operatives have been spying on Bartholomew's top aides for years.
Kyiv on August 31 hailed the Istanbul talks as "historic."
"It seems that our fair aspiration to receive autocephaly and the support of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew forced the Russian Orthodox Church to...begin a dialogue with Constantinople," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin wrote on Facebook.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has pushed for the Kyiv church to break away from Moscow, but he has said it is up to the clerics to decide.
Bartholomew is the primus inter pares (first among equals) of Orthodox churches across the world, including Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Romanian. His degree of influence varies, but many consider him to be the the spiritual head of the entire Orthodox faith.
His term in office has been marked by rocky relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has not always conceded that he is the spiritual leader of Orthodox believers.
After Bartholomew's meeting with Kirill, Russian news agencies quoted Russian church officials as dismissing reports that a split with Ukraine is now under way.
The TASS state-run news agency quoted Kirill as saying that "the organization of the Orthodox churches is such that not one church can make a decision that contradicts the position of the other churches. Therefore we are simply programmed for cooperation."