The Russian Orthodox Church is warning that it would sever ties with the leader of the worldwide Orthodox community if he grants autonomy to Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.
The warning on Friday follows Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I’s promise to allow the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to be autocephalous, or ecclesiastically independent. The Russian church, the world’s largest Orthodox communion, fiercely opposes the decision of the highest authority in Orthodox world.
The church in Ukraine has been tied to the Moscow Patriarchate for hundreds of years, although many parishes have split off over the past two decades to form a schismatic church. Calls for independence have increased since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Moscow Patriarchate’s spokesman Vladimir Legoyda warned Friday it will “break the Eucharistic communion” with the Istanbul-based patriarchate, considered ecumenical by the international community, if it makes the Ukrainian church autocephalous.
Legoyda said that the plans for autocephaly “threaten a fragile religious peace in Ukraine,” and charged that they have been driven by “political ambitions of the Ukrainian leaders.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is running for re-election next March, has strongly pushed Bartholomew to grant independence to the Ukrainian church.
His efforts received a fillip earlier this month when the Patriarchate announced that it was sending two bishops to Ukraine as a step toward declaring ecclesiastical independence for the church there.
The Russian Church has responded by declaring that it would not participate in events headed by the Patriarchate and would not even remember Bartholomew in its prayers.
Father Nikolai Balashov, a deputy head of the church’s foreign relations department, pointed at Friday’s seizure of a church in the Ivano-Frankivsk region western Ukraine by supporters of the Ukrainian church’s autonomy as a sign of what might happen if Bartholomew grants it ecclesiastical independence.
“It’s a sad harbinger of possible tragic developments in Ukraine if the government organs continue meddling in the church affairs in Ukraine,” he said. “If politics continue to intervene in the religious life it could lead to tragic consequences across Ukraine.”
Bartholomew I is regarded primus inter pares (first among equals) of Orthodox churches across the world, including Greek, Russian, Serbian and Romanian that appeal to 300 million around the world. His degree of influence varies, but many consider him the spiritual head of the entire Orthodox faith.
He remains known as Archbishop of Constantinople, in a throwback to the former Byzantine name of the city, which was only officially renamed as Istanbul in the 1920s after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey does not recognize Bartholomew as the Ecumenical Patriarch but just as the leader of Turkey’s remaining Greek Orthodox minority of just 2,500 people, describing him with the title Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Fener after the Istanbul district where the patriarchate is located.
His term in office has also been marked by rocky relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which gives short shrift to the idea he is the spiritual leader of Orthodox believers.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013 held an unprecedented gathering of the world’s Orthodox leaders in the Kremlin, Bartholomew did not attend and instead sent a lower-ranking cleric.
He instead focused on the rapprochement with the Catholic Church, a process that began in 1964 with the embrace between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the first such meeting since the 15th century.
Bartholomew also visited the Vatican for the inaugural mass of Pope Francis, the first time in history that an Ecumenical Patriarch had attended the installation of a Pope.