The most senior figure in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, has refused to give his blessing for the creation of a National Church in Ukraine. He said unity was “more important than any political aims”. The
Russia's Patriarch Alexy II has also arrived in Kiev to join the festivities. It is his first visit to Ukraine for eleven years.
Thousands of believers gathered on the streets of the Ukranian capital to greet the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Speaking at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery, he said:
“We need to treasure the great gift of unity which we have. We must cherish the unity within our Slavic brotherhood. We are here so that unity and peace can be among us.”
Earlier on Saturday, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko asked Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to bless the establishment of a unified local Orthodox Church.
“I believe a national local church will appear in Ukraine. I ask, Your Holiness, for your blessing, for the truth, for hope and for our country – Ukraine,” he said.
Patriarch Bartholomew rejected the plea:
“Concern about the protection of church unity is our responsibility, it's more important than any political aims. If we continue with matters not related to the spirit of the Church, it will corrupt the power of Baptism to integrate believers and lead to a separation.”
Despite heavy rain, thousands attended a ceremony on the square in front of the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Ukraine capital Kiev.
However, the dispute between the Russian and Ukrainian churches cast a shadow over events.
The row is centered on a Ukrainian move to unite the three branches of the Orthodox Church in the country and to break free from the control of the Moscow Metropolitan. As things stand, the Ukrainian church is an affiliate of Moscow.
Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko is backing the proposed split, leading to accusations that the religious dispute is being driven by pro-Western politicians.
Bishop Evstraty – a representative for the self-proclaimed Kiev Patriarchy – told RT that the Ukrainian Church had met all the conditions for independence, but that Moscow had refused to set it free: “Our faith came from Constantinople 1020 years ago, we are looking there for acceptance,” he said.
However, Father Lonkhin, a representative of the Moscow Patriarchy in Kiev, said any division would be a disaster for the Orthodox Church worldwide.
“A canonical split of churches in Ukraine would mean a split in all of Eastern Orthodoxy, a tragedy that would weaken the orthodox Christianity in the eyes of the world,” he said.
The orthodox community in Ukraine remains divided on the issue. The Moscow Patriarchy, on the other hand, is strongly opposed to a split. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesperson for Moscow Patriarchy believes any outside influence on the church is destructive.
“For 15 years some politicians in Ukraine have been trying to manipulate religion for political purposes. Sometimes they say very clearly that they need a national church,” he said.
“And the Church can never be national. The church is always universal. It’s above any ethnic, political or social division. The political interference into the life of the Church, into the difficult century long processes which are underway in Ukraine is destructive,” he added.
Many ordinary believers are bemused by the dispute. The faith sees no difference between the branches as they pray to the same saints and hold the same holidays on the same dates – the only thing that separates them is politics.
The importance of Kiev
Kiev remains the cradle of Russian Christianity. Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity as a means to unify the competing tribes of the time. Bringing it from Constantinople, he forced thousands into the Dnepr River to denounce their pagan beliefs and recognize Christ.
‘Kievan Rus’ thrived and expanded under Christianity, becoming one of Europe’s most powerful states.
Nowadays Kiev is no longer the capital of an empire, with the centre of Orthodoxy having moved to Moscow.