Ukrainian Orthodox leaders have agreed on the creation of a new national Orthodox church and elected a leader to head that church, a move that Ukraine's leaders say is vital to the country's security and independence but could raise tensions further with Moscow.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said 39-year-old Metropolitan Epifaniy of the Kyiv Patriarchate church had been chosen as head of the church by a council, comparing the move to Ukraine's referendum for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
"This day will go into history as a sacred day...the day of the final independence from Russia," Poroshenko told thousands of supporters in central Kyiv on December 15.
"And Ukraine will no longer drink, in the words of Taras Shevchenko, 'Moscow's poison from Moscow's cup,'" he said, quoting the country's national poet.
Poroshenko said Ukrainians finally had their own Orthodox church.
"What is this church? This is a church without [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. What is this church? This church is without [Russian Orthodox Patriarch] Kirill. What is this church? This is a church without prayers for the Russian authorities and Russian troops, because they kill Ukrainians. But this is a church with God and Ukraine!"
Relations between Russia and Ukraine have deteriorated dramatically since Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent support for separatists battling Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. The conflict there has killed more than 10,300 people since April 2014.
Epifaniy was chosen by a council at St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kyiv, built by the son of Prince Volodymyr, whose baptism in 988 led to the spread of Christianity in the region.
Addressing the crowd, Epifaniy said "God heard our appeals and gave us this anticipated unity."
He stressed that the new church's doors would be open to all and encouraged Ukrainians to rally behind it.
Russia has opposed Kyiv’s efforts to secure an independent church, comparing it to the Great Schism of 1054 that divided western and eastern Christianity.
On December 15, the Russian Orthodox Church called the council a failure because only two members of the church it supports in Ukraine had attended the meeting, according to Interfax.
Spokesman Metropolitan Ilarion said the plan "to persuade the canonical Ukrainian church to participate in the creation of the new structure failed...with the exception of two traitors."
Ukraine won approval for the new church in October from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, the seat of the global spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians.
"We want to support the process of Ukraine's split from Moscow and for us to have our own church, which is not governed from the Kremlin," said Lyudmyla Alekseyeva, 66, a pensioner who had come to the event with her daughter and granddaughter, in comments to Reuters.
Several thousand people rallied outside the ancient St. Sophia's where the meeting had taken place behind closed doors.
Poroshenko has made an independent church a campaign pledge as part of his campaign for reelection in 2019.
"Let's stand and pray for a Ukrainian church to be created today," Poroshenko said as he greeted several of the rally's participants before going into the cathedral.
"The creation of our church is another declaration of Ukraine's independence and you are the main participants of this historic event," he added.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate said on December 13 that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the "first among equals" in the global Eastern Orthodox faith, will hand over a "tomos" -- a decree granting autocephaly, or independence -- to the future head of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine on January 6.
Bartholomew announced the decision to recognize Ukraine's request for an autocephalous church in October.
The announcement by Bartholomew prompted the Russian Orthodox Church to announce days later that it was ending its relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in protest.
Ahead of the meeting, the Russian Orthodox Church called on international leaders to "protect" its followers in Ukraine in the face of what it called official pressure on Moscow-appointed clerics.