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Prayers Answered: Ukrainians Greet Church Split With Open Arms, Despite Moscow's Warnings

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) meets with Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, in Kyiv on October 11.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) meets with Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, in Kyiv on October 11.

KYIV -- "The Lord has seen the struggle of the Ukrainian people for their independence. He has heard our prayers."

That's how Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the historic announcement late on October 11 that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople had agreed to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Underscoring the importance of the move, Poroshenko, in televised remarks, called it "another act of declaration of independence of Ukraine."

He hailed it as a fresh blow to Russia's ruthless efforts to keep the former Soviet republic, a country of 44 million people that has been fighting Russia-backed separatists for four years, under its thumb.

"The [Russian] empire is losing one of the last levers of influence on its former colony," Poroshenko said.

Poroshenko Hails Independence Of Ukrainian Orthodox Church
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Indeed the decision, made at a synod in Istanbul chaired by Patriarch Bartholomew I -- considered the leader of roughly 300 million Orthodox Christians, or "first among equals" of Eastern Orthodox clerics -- to "proceed to the granting of autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine" marked a clear step closer to another remarkable break from Moscow and its reach into Kyiv's affairs.

There is still much to be done before independence is granted through a church decree known as a "Tomos," not least of which is unifying the current Ukrainian Orthodox churches and deciding on a leader for a united autocephalous church of Ukraine.

And, of course, there is reason to fear a response from Russia.

Tamara (left) sells candles to worshipers at St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv on October 12.
Tamara (left) sells candles to worshipers at St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv on October 12.

But the morning after news that the creation of an independent Ukrainian church was imminent, there was a steady flow of worshipers coming and going from Kyiv's yellow-and-blue St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, the mother cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, as its golden cupolas glistened in the autumn sun.

Women in head scarves crossed themselves and bowed their heads before entering. Inside, worshipers lit candles, kissed the glass cases of sacred icons, and whispered prayers.

It looked more or less the same as any other day, except for the slightly increased crowd and the smiles on their faces, said Tamara, a parishioner who volunteers her time to sell candles at the gates of the cathedral. "The Tomos is coming," she said with a big smile of her own as she handed a woman a yellow candle.

After taking a moment to say a prayer, Natalia, a retired schoolteacher and parishioner of St. Volodymyr's, told RFE/RL that her previous prayer -- for her church to be legitimized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and broken free from Russia -- had been answered.

The push for independence, said Natalia, who declined to give her last name, "was our own form of a tribunal, or referendum" on the Russian Orthodox Church and the grip it held on Ukraine's Orthodox Christians for hundreds of years.

"It's a blessing," Natalia said. "I'm happy. We're all just so happy today. Praise God."

'Splitting Orthodoxy'

But not everyone is happy about the decision. Across the capital, at the lower Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra -- the country's holiest site and largest monastery complex, which is leased for free by the government of Ukraine to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate -- monks did not want to answer questions about it.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Lavra directed RFE/RL to an online statement that condemned comments made by Ukraine's foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, who called the Moscow Patriarchate agents of the Kremlin, and accused him of "inciting religious hatred and discrimination on religious grounds."

Later, another statement, this one from a senior Moscow Patriarchate cleric, condemned the Ecumenical Patriarchate's decision.

"What happened at the synod in Istanbul yesterday shocked the entire Orthodox world," said Metropolitan Anthony of Boryspil and Brovary, chancellor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. "It seems that the Patriarchate of Constantinople deliberately takes the path of splitting world Orthodoxy."

He added, defiantly, "We were, are, and remain the only canonical church in Ukraine."

A man lights candles inside St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv.
A man lights candles inside St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv.

On October 12, the Kyiv Patriarchate called on Ukraine's senior Orthodox clerics to prepare for a special council to unite the country's churches ahead of a formal receipt of independence, which, according to the press secretary of the Kyiv Patriarchate, Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya, is expected to come sometime in mid-November.

The process of unification, the Kyiv Patriarchate said, "must be voluntary, peaceful, and without coercion."

"Every member of the church, as well as every community of laity or monks, will have the right to freely choose the center of their church subordination -- to belong to the Ukrainian or Russian church," it added.

Fear...And Joy

Amid fears of disorder, Ukraine's interior minister, Arsen Avakov, called on political and public figures to refrain from "provocations" that could risk destabilizing an already tense situation in the country.

"The Ministry of Internal Affairs will ensure security and law and order," Avakov said. "If there is a need to counteract extremism and religious hatred, it will be done so harshly. Let it not be a surprise to all hot heads."

Meanwhile in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that Russia was prepared to "defend the interests of the Orthodox" as it does Russians and Russian speakers across the world in the face of any "illegal actions."

Those words, similar to the warnings delivered by the Kremlin before its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, are certain to keep Kyiv on edge, especially as the war in the east grinds on.

As the Tomos was discussed in Istanbul on October 11, four Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed and three more wounded in the worst day of fighting since summer.

While some Ukrainians -- Tamara and Natalia at St. Volodymyr's, for instance -- acknowledged that they worried about what Russia's response might be, many more were jubilant.

Even the secular were in a celebratory mood. "I'm an atheist, but an atheist of the Kyiv Patriarchate," read a meme with an orange cat that was widely circulated on the Ukrainian Internet.

Also illustrating just how much the issue has bled into the mainstream in Ukraine, a popular Kyiv nightclub, Closer, was promoting a "Tomos Welcome Party" on Saturday night.

More than 800 people had RSVP'd or expressed interest in going at the time of publication. The public invitation promised free Kagor wine and a "fire show" with church candles, while a DJ spins the latest techno hits.

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