The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church has accused Russian Orthodox leaders of blocking a visit by the Pope, as the country's newly independent Orthodox Church continued to seek recognition by other Orthodox leaders.
"The Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, has said there are several conditions – first, an invitation from the Catholic Church; second, an invitation from the Ukrainian government; and third, that other Christian Churches don't object," said Archbishop Svietoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, whose Church combines the eastern rite with loyalty to Rome. "It isn't necessary to see the hand of Moscow in everything. But that hand is here, and we shouldn't be dependent on it."
In a Radio Liberty interview, Archbishop Shevchuk said Pope Francis had pledged to take his Church's latest invitation "very seriously", adding that he was certain Ukraine's new government, under President Volodymyr Zelensky, also understood the importance of ties with Rome.
Meanwhile, the Ecumenical Patriarch said the granting of autocephaly, or self-rule, to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine represented his "most important moment" of 2019, and rejected calls by Russian Orthodox leaders for the "Ukrainian question" to be debated at a Pan-Orthodox council.
"This move gave millions of Ukrainian Orthodox brethren a chance to restore normality and be able to run and direct their local church's affairs without dependence on any other", Bartholomew I said in an Istanbul address. "We were accused of granting them only a partial, incomplete autocephaly, but this isn't true. We have given them a full autocephaly, like all other churches in past centuries. We have no reason to interfere, unless they seek our advice".
Russian Orthodox leaders severed all ties with the Patriarch Bartholomew after he issued a "tomos of autocephaly" establishing the new Ukrainian church under Metropolitan Epiphanius Dumenko in January 2019, and are campaigning against its acceptance by other Orthodox denominations. However, the church was formally recognised in late October by the Orthodox Church of Greece, and by the Patriarchate of Alexandria in November, prompting Russian Orthodox leaders to cut ties with them in turn.
In December, Patriarch Kirill of Russia said he would back plans for an Orthodox summit, to be hosted in Jordan by Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem, who visited Moscow in November, to agree a joint attitude to Orthodox churches supporting the Ukrainian "schism". However, a spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarchate said last weekend the Jordan proposal was not supported by most Orthodox leaders, adding that Bartholomew had sent a "strict letter" to Patriarch Theophilus, ruling him to be "absolutely without competence" to organise it.
The new Ukrainian church said in December it had received "good, clear signals" that other churches would soon recognise it, despite "violent pressure" from Moscow. In a statement, its governing Holy Synod also called on the former head of Ukraine's breakaway Kiev Patriarchate, Filaret Denisenko, to drop plans to consecrate his own rival bishops and "return from his chosen path of lies and deceit".
Meanwhile, Metropolitan Epiphanius appealed last weekend for the "oppression" of members of his church in Russian-occupied Crimea to be discussed by the Trilateral Contact Group which is seeking a solution to the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has left around 13,000 dead, more than a quarter of them civilians, since 2014.
The Vatican's nuncio, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, described the Donbass region as an "open-air cemetery" after visiting separatist-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk at Christmas, and urged a "true and lasting reconciliation" to end the war.