Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew arrived for the fist time on Saturday at the autocephalous Church of Ukraine and participated in festivities celebrating the 30th anniversary of the country’s declaration of independence.
On Saturday, Patriarch Bartholomew I and the leader of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphanius I, together conducted a liturgy in Kyiv’s St. Michael’s Cathedral.
The patriarch met late Friday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who invited him to Ukraine to attend the 30th independence anniversary, which is being marked Tuesday. Ukraine declared its independence on Aug. 24, 1991, days after the collapse of a Soviet coup that precipitated the breakup of the USSR.
“For me personally, for Ukraine, for all of us, it is a great honor that you joined us on such important days,” Zelenskyy told Bartholomew during their meeting.
Ecumenical Patriarch recognizes autocephalous Ukraine Church
In January 2019, Bartholomew presented a decree of independence to the head of the nascent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, severing its centuries-long ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
The move was hailed by many Ukrainians, who had resented the status of the Moscow-affiliated church. The push for a full-fledged Ukrainian church was bolstered by fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed rebels. The conflict in the country’s industrial heartland erupted after Russia’s annexation in 2014 of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and has killed more than 14,000 people since then.
Russian Church severs relations with Ecumenical Patriarchate
The Russian Orthodox Church has denounced the move by the Ecumenical Patriarch, which forced clergy and believers to choose between belonging to the old Moscow-affiliated church or the new Ukrainian one, as a politically-driven encroachment on religious freedoms.
Following Bartholomew’s decision for the Ukrainian church independence, the Russian Orthodox Church severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
In an official declaration, members of the Russian Orthodox Church Holy Synod wrote that allowing another church to break away “is tantamount to renouncing its historical roots and commitments” making it “impossible” for the Russian Orthodox Church to continue its union with Constantinople.
The Holy Synod has also urged other Orthodox Churches to properly evaluate a decision taken by Constantinople and to “search for ways out of the gravest crisis that is tearing apart the body of church”.
He also expressed the hope the decision will be reversed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which counts in its fold close to 300 million Orthodox Christians.
Just before his Ukraine visit, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew hit back at his critics in the Russian Orthodox Church. In an interview he said:
“The problem with such people is that it is difficult for them to recognize reality, or that they refuse to recognize it. They are also ignorant of what autocephaly means, of its history and canonical practice.
“The Russian Church, to which they aspire to belong, received its autocephalous and patriarchal statuses from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Why then do they not want to acknowledge that the same canonical justification of autocephaly which was validly applied to grant autocephaly and patriarchal status to the Russian Orthodox and other Orthodox Churches by the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in the same way valid for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine?”