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U.S. Congratulates New Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Amid Russian Anger

The newly elected head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epifaniy, holds Mass at a cathedral in Kyiv on December 16.

The United States has congratulated Ukraine's new national Orthodox Church on its autonomy from Russia, a move that has incensed Moscow and further heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

In a statement on December 17, the U.S. State Department said it sent its congratulations to the new church's leader, Metropolitan Epifaniy, calling it "a historic moment for Ukraine."

"The United States maintains unwavering support for Ukraine and respects the freedom to worship unhindered by outside interference," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.

"The right to religious freedom extends to all Ukrainians, including those choosing to join -- or not to join -- the new Orthodox Church," he said.

For years, there have been three main rival Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, the largest being the Moscow Patriarchate, which is formally Ukrainian but answers to Moscow.

Ukrainian Orthodox leaders on December 15 agreed on the creation of a new national Orthodox Church and elected the 39-year-old Epifaniy to head it.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople-- the Istanbul-based institution that is often considered the spiritual headquarters for Orthodox Christianity-- is expected to hand over a formal decree granting independence -- known as a "tomos"-- on January 6.

Russia has accused the United States of encouraging the Constantinople Patriarchate of being behind the independence.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest and wealthiest of all Orthodox Churches worldwide, has severed relations in protest.

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