Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has signed a decree granting autocephaly, or independence, to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, ending more than 330 years of Russian religious control in Ukraine.
The ceremony on January 5 in Istanbul, which is considered the spiritual headquarters of Orthodox Christianity, was attended by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The decree, or "tomos," will now be handed over to the head of the new Ukrainian church, Metropolitan Epifaniy, on January 6, completing the two-day spiritual ceremony.
Bartholomew said Ukrainians could now enjoy "the sacred gift of emancipation, independence, and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention."
Poroshenko thanked the patriarch "for the courage to make this historic decision" and said it was "a great day" for Ukrainians.
Vladimir Legoida, a Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, denounced the decree as "a document that is the result of irrepressible political and personal ambitions."
It had been "signed in violation of the canons and therefore not possessing any canonical force," Legoida said in a statement on January 5.
"It is a great honor for me to visit Istanbul, where a long-awaited event will take place tomorrow," Poroshenko wrote on Facebook, referring to the official handover of the decree.
Poroshenko predicted that the move will open a "new era in Orthodox history."
"We pray for peace and unity," he added.
Bartholomew announced the decision to recognize Ukraine's request for an autocephalous church in October.
In December, Ukrainian Orthodox leaders agreed on the creation of a new national Orthodox church and elected the 39-year-old Epifaniy to head that church.
Russia long opposed such efforts by the Ukrainians for an independent church, which intensified after Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and began supporting separatists shortly thereafter in Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The announcement by Bartholomew, who is considered the leader of the 300-million-strong worldwide Orthodox community, came amid deepening tension over efforts by Ukrainian Orthodox churches to formally break away from Russia’s orbit.
It also prompted the Russian Orthodox Church to announce days later that it was ending its relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in protest.