Ukraine prepares to announce independent church amid standoff with Russia

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A Ukrainian church council will meet on Dec. 15 in order to create an independent Orthodox church and elect its leader, President Petro Poroshenko said yesterday. At the Unification Council of the Orthodox churches of Ukraine, the representatives of Ukraine's Orthodox churches will choose the patriarch of Kiev and announce officially the creation of a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Russia.

"The synod will be held on December 15, 2018 in St. Sophia [Cathedral], which for centuries has been the center of the Orthodox Ukrainian religious life," Poroshenko said, as reported by Reuters.

Under Poroshenko's presidency, Ukraine has pushed to establish a national church and thereby sever centuries-old ties with the Russian clergy. The Kiev authorities say the step is essential to tackling Russian meddling on its soil. The move came amid increasing tensions between Moscow and Kiev as the two countries continue trading blame for the worst crisis in years over the Kerch Strait.

Last week, the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate gathered in Istanbul in bid to approve an official decree, called a "tomos," granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church an autocephaly. Under the leadership of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the patriarchate announced in October that it would grant autocephaly, or independence, to the Ukrainian Church, a move Russia has long campaigned against. The decision ended more than 300 years of Moscow's control over Orthodox churches in Ukraine and affects millions of believers in Russia and Ukraine.

In the biggest split in modern Orthodox history, the Russian Orthodox Church decided to sever all relations with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate in protest over its endorsement of Ukraine's request for an independent church. The religious schism between the Istanbul Patriarchate and the Moscow Church marks an important new facet for the rift between Russia and Ukraine, who have become bitter enemies since the annexation of Crimea.

Since Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and the ensuing conflict with pro-Russia separatists in east Ukraine, Kiev has been wary of the influence of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who is an avid supporter of the Kremlin's policies. Ukraine's government lobbied strongly for autocephaly as part of a larger break from Russian influence. The issue has played a key role in Ukraine's March 2019 presidential elections, with incumbent President Petro Poroshenko making independence from the Russian Orthodox Church a key issue as he plans a re-election bid.

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