The Russian Orthodox Church is threatening to sever ties with the leader of the worldwide Orthodox community if he grants autonomy to Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.
The move comes amid a deepening row in Orthodox Christianity over the Ukrainian Church's bid to formally break away from Russia's orbit.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I -- who is considered the "first among equals" of Eastern Orthodox clerics -- has sent two special bishops to Ukraine in what is widely viewed as a step toward declaring ecclesiastical independence for the main Ukrainian Orthodox church that is loyal to Kyiv.
The Russian church, the world's largest Orthodox communion, fiercely opposes the decision.
Vladimir Legoida, a Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, said on September 28 that it will "break the Eucharistic communion" with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate if it makes the Ukrainian church autocephalous.
Earlier this month, Bartholomew sent two special bishops, or exarchs, to Ukraine to establish contacts with the heads of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is loyal to Kyiv.
The Russian Orthodox’s Church’s Holy Synod ruling body met on September 14 to consider a response to that move, announcing afterward that it will no longer take part in structures chaired by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Legoida said on September 14 that 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," the Russian Church’s Metropolitan Ilarion was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying on September 14.
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 I, 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. The Moscow Patriarchate still has a large following in Ukraine.