The Russian Orthodox Church has announced it will no longer take part in structures chaired by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and that a deepening row in Orthodox Christianity over the Ukrainian Church’s bid to formally break away from Russia’s orbit may lead to violence.
The Russian Orthodox Church's Holy Synod ruling body met on September 14 to consider a response after the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate said last week it was sending two bishops to Ukraine in what is widely viewed as a step toward declaring ecclesiastical independence for the main Ukrainian Orthodox church there.
"If the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [that answers to the Moscow Patriarchate] is declared [in Ukraine] the church of an aggressor country, if it is deprived of legal rights, then we can expect everything: that the schismatics will take control of the great monasteries, such as the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and the Pochayev Lavra," Metropolitan Hilarion, the chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church's External Relations Department, said in a September 15 interview on Russian RT television.
"Then, of course, Orthodox believers [loyal to the Moscow-affiliated church] will protect these holy places and bloodshed could follow," he added.
That move by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I -- who is considered "first among equals" of Eastern Orthodox clerics -- was strongly criticized by Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, as he opened the September 14 meeting of the Holy Synod.
Vladimir Legoida, a Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, said the Holy Synod had decided to suspend its participation in all structures chaired or co-chaired by representatives of the Patriachate of Constantinople.
"Essentially this is a breakdown of relations. To take an example from secular life, the decision is roughly equivalent to cutting diplomatic ties," Hilarion was quoted by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti as saying.
Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that answers to the Moscow Patriarchate, told the Holy Synod via a video link that the special bishops, or exarchs, sent by Bartholomew had already arrived in Ukraine and established contacts with the heads of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is loyal to Kyiv.
The Kremlin said it was following the situation closely and reiterated its opposition to any split in Orthodoxy.
"Of course for Moscow and indeed for the entire Orthodox world the single preferable scenario is the preservation of unity of this Orthodox world," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 14.
The Moscow Patriarchate still has a large following in Ukraine.
The Kyiv Patriarchate broke away from Moscow in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Its bid for recognition as a self-governing or autocephalous institution intensified after Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The ecumenical patriarch, currently Bartholomew, also holds the title of archbishop of Constantinople, the old Greek name for Istanbul, Turkey's largest city. The city fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453 but has remained the historic seat of Orthodoxy.
Russia, however, has long been home to the world's largest Orthodox Christian Church.