The US Secretary of State has pledged American backing for Ukraine's new independent Orthodox church, and welcomed its recent recognition by several churches abroad. "The US will always champion the right of all people to worship freely", said Mike Pompeo after a Kiev meeting with Metropolitan Epiphanij Dumenko, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. "I'm impressed by the metropolitan's efforts to ensure the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine is open to all believers... as well as his continued efforts to promote tolerance and respect for all in Ukraine".
The official made his comments in Twitter messages during an early February tour of former Soviet republics, which included talks and a wreath-laying ceremony in the Ukrainian capital with the 41-year-old metropolitan. He said he had found St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery "breathtakingly beautiful" and "an amazing monument to Ukraine's cultural and religious history", and welcomed the independent church's autumn recognition by the Orthodox Church of Greece and Patriarchate of Alexandria.
The Secretary of State, who also visited neighbouring Belarus, condemned "Russia's aggression" in eastern Ukraine, where a war against Moscow-backed separatists has left over 13,000 dead since 2014, adding that US sanctions against Russia would remain in place until Ukraine's "territorial integrity and sovereignty" were restored.
Russian Orthodox leaders severed all ties with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, for issuing a "tomos of autocephaly" establishing the separate Ukrainian church in January 2019, and are campaigning against its acceptance by other Orthodox denominations. In a weekend statement, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine said Metropolitan Epiphanij, who also met Pompeo during an October visit to Washington DC, had outlined his church's international ties and "society and state interaction", and thanked the US for its "firm and reliable support" for Ukrainian "state-building and democratic reforms".
"Metropolitan Epifaniy called for strengthening Russia's sanctions deterrence until the violation of human rights in the occupied territories is completely stopped and they are liberated from occupation", the statement added. "As the state responsible de facto for the condition of the occupied territories, Russia must adhere to international standards relating to freedom of religion and belief, in particular, to stop the persecution and systematic restriction of the rights of the clergy and communities of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine."