Russia's top diplomat on Friday called the Ecumenical Patriarchate's decision to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's independence from Moscow a Washington-backed "provocation," from which he vowed to protect "the faithful" in Ukraine if the schism sparks violence.
On Thursday, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based head of global Orthodox Christianity, recognized Ukrainian churches as independent from the Russian Orthodox Church, ending the Moscow Patriarchy's 332-year oversight of Ukrainian parishes.
The move has immediately restored Ecumenical Patriarchate jurisdiction over all Orthodox faithful in Ukraine, granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the right to autocephaly — the ecclesiastical term for self-governance. Under this decree, leaders of Ukraine's Orthodox Christian community will be able to form an independently administrated Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Calling the decision "a provocation by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, undertaken with direct public support from Washington," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the move as part of a conspiracy in violation of internationally recognized laws.
"Interfering in church life is forbidden by law in Ukraine, in Russia, and, I hope, in any normal state," he said, according to a transcript of a press conference posted on the Foreign Ministry's website.
The decision, which has sparked celebration in Kyiv and outrage in Moscow, is a victory in Ukraine's struggle to keep Moscow at bay since its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its continued support for separatists fighting against Kyiv in the east, where violence has claimed an estimated 10,000 lives.
Theologian Sergei Chapnin recently wrote in Bloomberg News that "there's a real danger that the rift could lead to bloodshed, an outcome that all sides must act decisively to prevent."
Although the Kyiv Patriarchy's formal break from Moscow has been discussed intermittently since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian aggression since 2014 has widened fissures running throughout Eastern Europe's Slavic Orthodox community, hastening the split being witnessed this week.
"This step by the Kyiv Patriarchy was expected for a long time, and it is in response to many factors," said Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, acting director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
"The Ukrainian people are divided. There are millions of Orthodox people who don't have an alternative to the Moscow Patriarchy ... and those people want to belong to an independent church that is free from Russian propaganda, free from collaboration with the Russian regime," he told VOA, calling the Moscow Patriarchy an ideological instrument of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
"Because the church was intertwined with this aggressive policy of the Russian state, the response to the Russian aggression now includes also response to the ecclesial issue," he said. "So, the ecclesial issue in Ukraine — the church issue in Ukraine — has become a part of the political and security agenda for the state."
Even then, he added, the Kyiv Patriarchy's divorce from Moscow will give the faithful more options in terms of how they choose to practice their faith.
"This move is wise because it corresponds completely to the principle of freedom of consciousness, of freedom of religion," he said, explaining that all Ukraine-based parishioners will be able to choose which type of Orthodox Church they want to attend — including those guided by tenets of the Russian Orthodox tradition.
"And the [Ukrainian] state really stressed that in the statements by [President Petro Poroshenko] and other political officials, that they will respect that choice of the people and that communities can belong to any jurisdiction they want."
In September, Patriarch Filaret, head of the Kyiv Patriarchy, told VOA's Ukrainian Service that the process of unifying Ukraine's Orthodoxy will guarantee that each parish will be free to determine its future.
"Religious infighting would be a justification for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs," he said, vowing to avoid bloodshed at all costs. "We want this process to be free of violence. If they don`t want to join a Ukrainian church, they can stay with the Russian church."
Kyiv's formal split from Moscow, he added, means that the Russian Orthodox Church will not only lose most of its political and ideological influence over Ukrainian faithful, but also its standing as one of the leaders of global Orthodoxy.
"Currently, Moscow's Patriarchy together with the Ukrainian church is the biggest Orthodox church in the world," he told VOA, adding that Constantinople's recognition of autocephaly cuts the Moscow Patriarchy to half its current size.
"It wouldn't be able to fight for leadership in the Orthodox Church," Filaret said, referring to a centuries-long geopolitical competition between Moscow and Constantinople to claim command of Orthodoxy's quarter-billion followers worldwide.
Although more than two-thirds of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians, Russia is home to the largest number of Orthodox faithful, bolstering its national identity as a bastion of traditional Christian values, an image the Kremlin goes out of its way to project globally.
The next step in Ukraine's split from Russia is to reunite its various strands of Orthodox faith under the new church, which includes deciding the fate of church buildings and monasteries, some of which are aligned to the Russian Orthodox Church.
At the start of 2018, Ukraine was home to roughly one-third of the Russian church's parish holdings, according to Kyiv's official data.
Russia's past efforts to undermine the Kyiv Patriarchy's move toward self-rule involved a cyberattack on Bartholomew's top clergy, according to the Associated Press.
Last month, the State Department endorsed support for Ukraine's Orthodox religious leaders' pursuit of autocephaly, saying it "maintains unwavering support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the Russian occupation of Crimea."
This story originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service. Some information is from AFP and Reuters.