KIEV - A historic council of Orthodox bishops in Kiev has created a new Ukrainian church independent from Russia, President Petro Poroshenko announced on Saturday.
The announcement came after Ukrainian priests held a historic synod in Kiev’s 11th century St. Sophia Cathedral to work toward establishing an Orthodox church independent from Moscow.
“It happened,” Poroshenko told a crowd awaiting the council’s decision in central Kiev.
He also announced the council had chosen the head of the new church: Metropolitan Epiphanius, whose secular name is Sergei Dumenko.
“I would like to call on all our brothers, bishops and all believers to the newly created united Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” Epiphanius, 39, told the crowd outside the cathedral.
“The doors of our church are open to all.”
Poroshenko said the event will “go down in history” as the day Ukraine “finally received (its) independence from Russia.”
Earlier, he addressed the synod of bishops, saying Kiev’s national security depends on “spiritual independence” from Moscow.
The Ukrainian leader, who has made an independent church a campaign pledge ahead of an unpredictable election next year, told the bishops that the state “did everything it could” toward creating the church.
But he also said that those wishing to remain loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church could do so.
“I guarantee that the government will respect the choice of those” remaining faithful to the Moscow patriarchate, and “protect” those preferring to break away, Poroshenko said.
Several thousand Ukrainians had rallied outside the cathedral throughout the day, awaiting the synod’s decision.
“The people have been waiting for this. Our Ukrainian church should finally be independent from Moscow,” 65-year-old Mykhaylo Khalepyk, who traveled to Kiev from the southern Kherson region, said.
Vitaliya Popovych, also at the rally, said she hoped Ukraine would have a new independent church “that will have a pro-state position.”
Several in the crowd said local churches across the country had encouraged parishioners to travel to the capital, even offering free transport.
Ties between Russia and Ukraine have broken down since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 following a pro-Western uprising in Kiev. This year, those tensions spilled over into the religious arena.
The synod sought to realize a landmark decision by Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to recognize Ukraine’s independence from the Russian Orthodox Church.
The ruling in October sparked fury in Moscow, which has overseen the Ukrainian branch of Orthodoxy for the last 332 years. It led the Russian Orthodox Church to cut all ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The synod aimed to unite various branches of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine into a single independent body.
But Ukraine’s Moscow-loyal church said it would snub the event and banned its priests from going to the synod.
Despite that ban, a cleric of the church, Archbishop Kliment, said he had recognized two bishops from the Moscow patriarchy in a photograph from the synod.
The meeting was dominated by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, the country’s largest branch by number of believers.
Its leader, Patriarch Filaret, founded the church after the fall of the Soviet Union, but it remained unrecognized by other Orthodox churches until recently.
The smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church also took part.
In Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church dismissed the synod as uncanonical.
Vladimir Legoida, a spokesman for the Moscow church, told Russian state television the Kiev synod had “no church, religious or evangelical meaning” and that it will have “no canonical consequences.”
Ukraine’s SBU security service warned this week that Russia was planning to stage “provocations” in the country as the clerics were meeting.
The SBU’s deputy head Viktor Kononenko asked Ukrainians to “refrain from holding any (political) gatherings during this period” to avoid them being “used by the aggressor to weaken or discredit our country.”
Earlier this month, Ukrainian security services raided several Orthodox churches aligned with Russia as religious tensions grew between the two countries.
The Russian church and the Kremlin have both said they fear Kiev will use force to wrest Moscow-loyal churches and monasteries into its control.
Ahead of the council, Russia’s Patriarch Kirill appealed to the Pope, the United Nations and others in the West to defend his church in Ukraine from “persecution.”
Kiev officials have framed the church issue as one of national security, with Poroshenko in the past referring to the branch loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate as a “threat.”
The synod comes shortly after a fresh crisis in which Russia seized three Ukrainian Navy ships and arrested 24 sailors in the waters around Crimea.