On Monday, January 7, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church held its first service after splitting from Russia. The New York Times reports that the break was made official on Jan 6 in Istanbul (still recognized by the Orthodox Church as Constantinople) when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I gave a Tomos of Autocephaly to Metropolitan Epifaniy, the Ukrainian Church’s new leader.
“Today, our Orthodox Church is ready for independent existence,” said Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, who was present during the ceremony. “The Ukrainian people thank God and what has happened is a true miracle, which we owe to the Creator’s will.”
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s first service since the split celebrated the Christmas holiday. Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar and observe Christmas on January 7 instead of on December 25.
At the service, Metropolitan Epifaniy, along with President Poroshenko, brought the newly received Tomos into Kiev’s St. Sophia Cathedral. Hundreds of people stood for two hours in the snow, watching the service on screens outside of the cathedral because there was no room inside it. They also waited in line afterward to see the Tomos.
Tensions With Russia
The Russian Orthodox Church is strongly opposed to the Ukrainian Church’s decision to break away from its authority. In an interview, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has said that the split will ruin the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and called the situation “a theatre of the absurd.” When Patriarch Bartholomew announced in October he would be giving the Ukrainian Church permission to break away from Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church cut ties with Constantinople.
In both Russia and Ukraine, the Orthodox Church is closely tied to the government, so the schism between to the two churches is highly political. Because Russian President Vladimir Putin often uses the Russian Orthodox Church to validate his decisions, the situation impacts the Russian government as well as the Russian church.
For its part, the Ukrainian church has been seeking to break away from the Russian church ever since Ukraine achieved political independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This desire has only increased since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that President Poroshenko has an election coming up in March and that the religious split is politically advantageous for him. Notably, he ended his speech in Istanbul by saying, “Glory to God! Glory to Ukraine!”
Ukrainian border officials recently seized a shipment of Russian Patriarch Kirill’s Christmas message, stating their reason was that it transgressed “customs formalities.” Despite that claim, it’s hard not to think that the detainment is connected to the divide between the churches.
It is unclear what the long-term ramifications of this religious divide will be. One potential consequence is violence. The New York Times reports:
There has been concern that the schism dividing the Ukrainian and Russian churches could provoke violent clashes over church property, not least the famous monastery in central Kiev revered as the birthplace of Russian Christianity. President Vladimir V. Putin himself warned of that possibility last month.