The Ukrainian Orthodox council has elected a leader of the country's newly-established independent Orthodox church. The decision to cut ties with Moscow has caused a split within the Ukrainian church hierarchy.
Ukraine on Saturday formally created a new national Orthodox church, breaking away from Russia's influence, as worsening political and military tensions between the two neighbors spills over to religion.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed the decision following a historic synod at Kyiv's Saint Sophia Cathedral when the country's Orthodox Council voted to establish the independent church.
Poroshenko added that Metropolitan Epifany, of the Kiev Patriarchate church, was chosen as head of the new church: "This day will go down in history as the sacred day ... the day of the final independence from Russia," Poroshenko told a crowd awaiting the council's decision in central Kiev.
Several thousand people had rallied outside the cathedral ahead of the synod in support of the move, which the Ukrainian president pushed for as part of his 2019 re-election campaign.
Read more: What is the Orthodox Church?
Attending Saturday's synod as a non-voting observer, Poroshenko told senior priests that the new church was "a question of our Ukrainian national security, of our statehood."
The founding of a new Ukrainian Orthodox church had been in the works since Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea following a pro-Western uprising in Kyiv.
Moscow has also been widely accused of backing pro-Russian separatists battling the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has killed 10,000 people, according to United Nations estimates.
A fresh crisis, last month, that saw Russia seize three Ukrainian navy ships and arrest 24 sailors in the waters around Crimea sent relations to new lows.
Approved by Constantinople
The church's establishment received a boost in October when the spiritual leader of the global Orthodox Church — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople — recognized Ukraine's independence from the Russian Orthodox Church.
In doing so, he revoked a 332-year-old ruling that had placed Ukraine under the Patriarchate of Moscow. That decision led the Russian Orthodox Church to break off all ties with Constantinople, fearing that Kyiv would force Moscow-loyal churches and monasteries into its control.
The Constantinople Patriarchate's leaders — based in Istanbul, Turkey — are widely considered to be the most influential in the global Orthodox hierarchy, which boasts some 300 million followers.
Around half of them, however, are aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is considered to have close ties to the Russian state, especially under President Vladimir Putin's leadership.
Rift within Ukraine's church hierarchy
Despite the support of three Ukrainian church branches, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine of the Moscow Patriarchate — which comprises most priests, churches, and monasteries, has boycotted the meeting and has recommitted itself to Moscow's dominion. The Russian Orthodox Church still considers Ukraine its territory.
If the attempt to create a unified Ukrainian Church is successful, it would be among the largest in the Orthodox world in terms of numbers of believers. Some 67 percent of Ukraine's 45 million population adheres to one or more strands of Orthodox Christianity.
mm/jm (AFP, AP, DPA)