The spiritual head of Orthodox Christians worldwide formally granted independence to the Ukrainian church on Saturday, marking an historic split from Russia which Ukrainian leaders see as vital to the country’s security.
The decree, granting “autocephaly”, was signed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at a service with the head of the Ukrainian church Metropolitan Epifaniy and President Petro Poroshenko in St George’s Cathedral in Istanbul.
“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 at a ceremony accompanied by solemn liturgical singing.
“I want to thank the generations of Ukrainians who dreamed…and finally God sent us the Orthodox Church of Ukraine,” he told the congregation in the crowded church.
The patriarchate, the seat of the spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, endorsed Ukraine‘s request for the new church in October. The decree, or Tomos, will be handed to Epifaniy at a ceremony on Sunday, completing the process of recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Ukraine last month chose 39-year-old Epifaniy to head the new church, in a move which Poroshenko compared to Ukraine‘s referendum for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The move incensed Moscow, and prompted President Vladimir Putin to warn of possible bloodshed in his annual news conference. Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.
Ukraine imposed martial law in November, citing the threat of a full-scale invasion after Russia captured three of its vessels in the Kerch Strait.