Russian Orthodox leaders have reacted furiously to moves by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, to recognise an independent Ukrainian Church, a fortnight after attempts to patch up an accord at an inter-Orthodox summit in Istanbul.
“Constantinople's vile and treacherous policy is damaging not just Russian Orthodoxy, but the entire Orthodox world,” Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Moscow Patriarchate's foreign relations director, told the Rossiya-24 TV channel at the weekend. “The path now proposed is, in fact, an act of robbery against the territory of another local Church - this is why the Russian Orthodox Church views the actions of Constantinople as an invasion of its canonical territory, an attempt to capture its flock.”
The 52-year-old metropolitan made his comments as the Russian Church's governing Holy Synod suspended ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate following its appointment of two foreign exarchs, or bishops, to prepare the formation of an autocephalous, or self-governing, Ukrainian Church separate from Russian jurisdiction. He said the “door to dialogue” could still reopen if Patriarch Bartholomew modified his decision, and desisted from assuming “everything outside the canonical territories of local churches should belong to the Patriarchate of Constantinople”.
However, the Russian claims were rejected as “dishonourable” by an Ecumenical Patriarchate spokesman, Archbishop Job Getcha, who said Moscow’s pretensions to “direct religious life in Ukraine” were “baseless and improper”, and accused Hilarion and others of attempting “to intimidate the Orthodox world” with threats of schism.
“If Ukraine is no longer part of the Russian empire or Soviet Union, and if a division lasting almost 30 years has left millions of people outside any canonical church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has a duty to take appropriate steps where the Moscow Patriarchate has failed,” Archbishop Getcha told Ukraine's Cerkvarium news agency. “Constantinople isn't interfering in the affairs of another Church - it's acting within its canonical sphere, of which the Kiev province has long formed part.”
Bartholomew I named exarchs Daniel Zelinskyj of the US and Hilarion Rudnyk of Canada to head work on the new Ukrainian Church on 7 September, a week after failing to reach agreement with Russia's Patriarch Kirill at a three-hour session in Istanbul. Both exarchs held planning talks on Monday with President Petro Poroshenko, whose forces are battling Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and who has vigorously backed calls for a single Church independent of Moscow.
However, in its statement last Friday, the Russian Synod branded the appointments a “gross violation of church law”, insisting Ukrainian Orthodoxy had been under Moscow's jurisdiction since the seventeenth century. The Synod said the Russian Church would no longer meet or concelebrate services with Ecumenical Patriarchate bishops, or mention Bartholomew in its prayers, and would sever all “Eucharistic communion” if the “interfering activities” continued. It also warned Patriarch Bartholomew would forfeit his honorary primacy among the world’s 14 main Orthodox Churches if he persisted in “attempts to rebuild Orthodox ecclesiology according to the Roman Catholic model”.
Statements of support for the Moscow Patriarchate have come in recent days from Orthodox leaders in Poland and Greece, although the Greek government has refused visas to Russian church officials amid complaints that the Moscow Patriarchate is being used as a foreign policy tool by President Vladimir Putin.
In a separate Rossiya-24 interview on Monday, Metropolitan Hilarion accused the United States of backing the Ecumenical Patriarchate's moves in a bid to “destroy the Russian Orthodox Church”, adding that US ambassadors enjoyed “very close connections” with both President Poroshenko and Bartholomew I. He added that most Ukrainian Orthodox Christians would stick with the Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, whose leader, Metropolitan Onufry Berezovsky, was the “only figure” capable of "uniting Ukrainians".
However, a joint survey by the Kiev-based Razumkov and Socis polling centres, published on Monday by Ukraine's Religious News Service (RISU) suggested support for the Moscow-linked church had now dropped to 16.9 per cent of Orthodox Ukrainians, with 45.2 per cent identifying with a Kiev Patriarchate which broke from Russian Orthodoxy in the early 1990s.