The Orthodox Church of Ukraine was formally granted independence at a ceremony in Istanbul on Saturday, completing a historic split from Russian religious control that had been ongoing since 1868.
Ukrainian leaders see an independent church as a crucial bulwark against Russian interference, but Russia strongly opposes the split, comparing it to the Great Schism of 1054 that divided Christianity into the Eastern Orthodox churches, with leadership based in present-day Istanbul, and the Catholic Church, with its seat in Rome.
In a solemn ceremony filled with liturgical singing, the leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I, signed a decree known as a "tomos" that grants autocephaly, or independent national religious authority, to the Ukrainian church.
"The pious Ukrainian people have awaited this blessed day for seven entire centuries," Bartholomew I said in his address. Ukrainians can now enjoy "the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention," he added.
The patriarch first endorsed Ukraine's entreaties for an independent church in October. Infuriated, the Russian church broke ties with the patriarchy in Istanbul, the center of the Orthodox belief for some 300 million Christians worldwide. In November, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Bartholomew signed a cooperation agreement.
Poroshenko and the leader of the new Ukrainian church, Metropolitan Epifaniy, were also in attendance at Saturday's ceremony.
"I want to thank the millions of Ukrainians around the world who responded to my appeal to pray for the church to be established," Poroshenko said. "I want to thank the generations of Ukrainians who dreamed...and finally God sent us the Orthodox Church of Ukraine."
He posted photos of the signing ceremony on his Twitter account.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia devolved into hostilities in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and violent conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government. In the latest standoff in November, Ukraine imposed martial law after Russia captured three Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait near Crimea.
Ukraine has accused Kremlin-backed churches of spreading pro-Russia propaganda, which Russian religious leaders have denied.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church's media relations, Vladimir Legoida, dismissed the Istanbul decree-signing ceremony. It "is just a paper, the result of restless political and personal ambitions. It was signed in breach of canonicity and this is why it has no power," he said in a Telegram message, according to Reuters news agency.
The Patriarchate of Moscow has more followers than the Patriarchate of Constantinople and has challenged it for authority in the past.
cb/amp (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)