Ukraine church's historic split from Russia granted by patriarch

Move by Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I comes amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

    The recently established Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been granted independence, formalising an historic split from the Russian Church after more than 300 years of alignment.

    Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and Head of the global Orthodox Church Bartholomew I signed the "Tomos" independence decree in a ceremony in the Turkish city of Istanbul on Saturday.

    Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Metropolitan Epifaniy, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, were present at the event.

    Bartholomew I said the move would grant Ukrainians "the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance", adding they would be "free from every external reliance and intervention".

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    Poroshenko, for his part, thanked Bartholomew I "for the courage to make this historic decision" and said that "among the 15 stars of the Orthodox churches of the world a Ukrainian star has appeared," referring to the updated number of churches that don't answer to an external authority.

    "I want to thank the millions of Ukrainians around the world who responded to my appeal to pray for the church to be established," Poroshenko added in a speech at the ceremony.

    Bartholomew I will officially hand the decree to the new Ukrainian church at a mass in Istanbul on Sunday, Russia's state-owned TASS news agency reported.

    'Violation of the canons'

    Vladimir Legoida, a spokesman for the Moscow church, denounced the decree as "a document that is the result of irrepressible political and personal ambitions", the AFP news agency reported.

    It had been "signed in violation of the canons and therefore not possessing any canonical force", Legoida said in a statement.

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    The independence decree will force Ukrainian clerics to pick sides between the Moscow-backed Ukrainian churches and the new church as fighting persists in eastern Ukraine between government forces and rebels backed by Russia.

    It came after Bartholomew I revoked a 1686 ruling that placed Ukraine under the patriarchate in Moscow in October.

    The move was largely boycotted by Ukraine's biggest church, which is loyal to Russia.

    Moscow and the Russian church, meanwhile, severed ties with Istanbul, the centre of the Orthodox world.

    Ukrainian Orthodox leaders approved the creation of a new, unified church split from the Moscow Patriarchate last month, however.

    Ukraine-Russia tensions

    Ukraine and Russia have been at loggerheads since 2014 when Kiev street protests urging Ukrainian integration with Europe led to the ousting of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.

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    Russia subsequently annexed Crimea and has supported Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine's east in a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people.

    Ukraine imposed martial law in November, citing the threat of a full-scale invasion after Russia captured three of its vessels in the Kerch Strait, a narrow sea passage close to the Crimean peninsula that separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

    Poroshenko announced the end of the measure last month, saying military rule had to be lifted on account of an upcoming presidential vote scheduled to be held on March 31.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies