Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and the Istanbul-based Orthodox patriarch on Saturday signed an accord that paves the way for the recognition of an independent Ukrainian church, provoking new fury in Moscow.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I had on October 11 agreed to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate, a move that was welcomed with jubilation by Kiev but condemned as “catastrophic” in Moscow.
On a visit to Istanbul that will see him hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Poroshenko signed an agreement setting out the steps needed to formalize the recognition of the independence of the Ukrainian Church, known as Tomos.
“On behalf of the Ukrainian people, I am very grateful to His Holiness and to all the bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchy for the extremely important and wise decision to open the road to God for the Ukrainian nation and its church,” Poroshenko said.
“The agreement that we signed today sets the conditions so that the preparation to grant the Tomos will be done in absolute correspondence with the canonical rules of the Orthodox Church.”
Poroshenko also tweeted: “Today is a historic day. We have reached an agreement on the cooperation between Ukraine and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which we just signed with His Holiness.”
The issue is set to play a key role in Ukraine’s March 2019 presidential elections with Poroshenko making Tomos a key issue as he plans a re-election bid.
The Patriarchate is based in its historic home of Istanbul, the former Constantinople and once the capital of the Byzantine Empire before the Ottoman Muslim conquest of 1453.
Batholomew is considered the “first among equals” of Orthodox patriarchs.
The Patriarchate of Moscow, which is strongly backed by the Kremlin, argues it technically oversees most of Ukraine’s Orthodox parishes and has warned that independence would provoke a rift in global Orthodoxy.
Metropolitan Hilarion, who oversees the external relations of the Russian church, said the new accord was one of several recent decisions by Bartholomew “which lie outside the canonical domain and are exclusively political.”
According to Russia’s TASS news agency, he accused Bartholomew of “carrying out an order from overseas aiming to weaken and divide the unified Russian church”.
The Ukrainian Church is split into three bodies — one technically overseen by the Patriarch of Moscow, a fact the Kiev government considers unacceptable given its ongoing war with Russia-backed rebels in the east.
Ukraine and Russia have been at loggerheads since 2014 when Kiev street protests urging Ukrainian integration with Europe prompted the ousting of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea later that year and backed rebels who carved out two unrecognized breakaway regions in Ukraine’s mineral-rich east in a conflict that continues to this day.