KYIV, UKRAINE - Ukrainian Orthodox leaders on Saturday approved the creation of a unified church independent of the Moscow Patriarchate and elected a leader to head the new church, officials said.
The leader of the new autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be Metropolitan Epiphanius, a 39-year-old bishop from the Kyiv Patriarchate.
The vote, which was held Saturday at a closed-door synod in Kiev's St. Sophia Cathedral, is certain to anger authorities in Russia.
"God heard our appeals and gave us this anticipated unity,'' Epiphanius told a crowd of thousands who had gathered outside the cathedral. He stressed that the new church's doors would be open to all, and encouraged Ukrainians to rally behind it.
The newly formed community is now expected to receive independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based institution considered the so-called "first among equals'' of leaders of the world's Orthodox churches. It has already drafted a charter for an independent Ukrainian church.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has made the creation of a new church a key campaign issue, attended the synod as a non-voting observer.
"Ukraine was not, is not and will not be the canonical territory of the Russian church,'' Poroshenko told the gathering of Orthodox officials on Saturday. He added that an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church was now a matter of national security.
"This is a question of Ukrainian statehood,'' Poroshenko said. "We are seizing spiritual independence, which can be likened to political independence. We are breaking the chains that tie us to the [Russian] empire.''
Poroshenko said he would travel with Epiphanius to Istanbul in January to receive an official Tomos from the head of global Orthodoxy granting the new church independence.
Representatives of Ukraine's three Orthodox churches attended the synod, but only two from the branch loyal to Moscow showed up.
The Russian Orthodox Church has protested vigorously against Kyiv's attempts to create an independent church. One Russian bishop — Metropolitan Hilarion in Volokolamsk — on Saturday compared the two representatives of the Moscow-backed church to Judas.
A spokesman for Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, vowed Saturday that the Moscow Patriarchate will continue to work in Ukraine despite the creation of the new independent church.
The Russian Orthodox Church on Friday called on the United Nations, the leaders of Germany and France, the pope and other spiritual leaders to protect believers in Ukraine in the face of pressure on Moscow-affiliated clerics.
Ukrainian authorities have sought to portray Russian Orthodox priests in Ukraine as supporting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, claims that the clerics have rejected.
As church tensions have grown, Ukraine's Security Service has searched Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine and the homes of Russian Orthodox priests in several Ukrainian cities. The agency also has summoned dozens of priests in for questioning.