Ukraine has declared the founding of a national Orthodox church independent of Russia, stripping the Kremlin of an instrument it has used for centuries in efforts to dominate its neighbor.
Bishops from the country’s three main Orthodox churches convened a “Unification Council” in the 11th-century St. Sophia Cathedral here on 15 December to elect a leader for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Its creation is a significant victory for U.S.-backed President Petro Poroshenko, whose army has been fighting an armed conflict against Russia and separatists in Ukraine’s east for over four years. Mr. Poroshenko, who is seeking re-election in March, hailed the result of the council as bringing freedom from Russian influence.
“It’s a church without Putin,” Mr. Poroshenko told a crowd of several thousand outside the cathedral, referring to the Russian president. “It’s a church without prayers for the Russian government and Russian army. Because the Russian government and Russian army are killing Ukrainians.”
Bishops from the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian arm of the Russian Orthodox Church that has for centuries claimed dominion over Ukraine, mostly stayed away from the meeting, at least two did attend.
The Russian church has decried the decision by Orthodoxy’s foremost leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, to grant Ukraine its own church for causing a rift in the second-largest Christian denomination. The Russian Orthodox Church suspended communion with Bartholomew’s Ecumenical Patriarchate in protest in October.
The new Ukrainian church’s leader, Metropolitan Epifaniy, will travel next month to Istanbul, where Bartholomew is based, to receive a decree granting a self-governing church. Epifaniy comes from the Kiev Patriarchate, an organization that split from the Russian church after Ukraine became independent but had been shunned by global Orthodoxy.
The Moscow Patriarchate had remained the most-popular and powerful even after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But the Kiev Patriarchate gained popularity in recent years amid anger at Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and military interventions in eastern Ukraine. Government officials accused the Moscow Patriarchate of supporting Russia in the conflict, which that church denies.
Thousands from across the country stood for hours on a square outside the St. Sophia Cathedral since the early morning in freezing temperatures. They listened to political speeches, prayers from a group of military chaplains and musicians playing the bandura, a traditional Ukrainian string instrument.
As darkness fell shortly after 5 p.m., the bells of the cathedral rang and Mr. Poroshenko took the stage with Metropolitan Epifaniy. “It’s the day of our final independence from Russia,” Mr. Poroshenko said to cries of “Glory!” and “Thank you!”