Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Russian patriarch battles independent Orthodox church in Ukraine

The spiritual leader of the Orthodox world, Patriarch Bartholomew, left, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, during a religious service in Kiev on Sunday.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church emphasized the unity of the Slavic Orthodoxies on Sunday during a rare liturgy conducted jointly by the patriarch of the Greek-Orthodox church in İstanbul in the face of increasingly fierce attempts by the Ukrainian government to establish an independent national church.

Russian Patriarch Alexy II and Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Greek-Orthodox Church of Fener-İstanbul, on Sunday marked 1,020 years since the conversion of Kiev in a liturgy also attended by President Victor Yushchenko.

Bartholomew arrived in Kiev on Friday to join the celebrations, seen by Ukrainian officials as an opportunity to assert the independence of their local church from Russia, a policy Ukraine has been seeking since the 2004 Orange Revolution that moved the country away from Moscow and closer to the West.

However Russian Patriarch Alexy II, who is paying his first visit to Ukraine in 10 years, is fighting to retain influence over the predominantly Orthodox country of 46 million. Alexy II arrived in Kiev on Saturday for the first time in 11 years for yesterday’s ceremony, conducted with the İstanbul church for the first time in eight years.

Ankara sees Patriarch Bartholomew as the leader of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, although the world Orthodox community considers him their ecumenical spiritual leader.

Bartholomew is called the “first among equals” among Orthodox leaders, but wields little real power over the world’s more than 250 million Orthodox souls. That power rests with the patriarchs of the various self-governing churches, the largest of which is the Russian Orthodox Church of Patriarch Alexy II.

Thousands of Ukrainian believers gathered in the early morning hours on Sunday in front of the monument of Vladimir the Great, under whose reign the region converted to Christianity in 988, to attend the liturgy. The event follows a liturgy in the St. Sophia Cathedral in the center of the city on Saturday during which Yushchenko publicly expressed his confidence that an “autonomous national church will see the light in Ukraine as an historic truth,” in front of thousands of people.

Yesterday’s liturgy was conducted in Greek and Russian and followed a restrained speech from Kiev Patriarch Vladimir, who emphasized Vladimir the Great’s role in the baptism of Ukraine. He also expressed “pain” and “sorrow” over the schism created by two breakaway churches unrecognized both by Moscow and Bartholomew, saying they prayed for unity and expressing his confidence that peace and understanding would eventually prevail over current disputes.

Patriarch Bartholomew described in detail in his speech the role of the Orthodox Church in İstanbul in the Christianization of Kiev, including the Christianization of Olga of Kiev, the first ruler of the medieval state who converted to Christianity, and hundreds of missionaries sent by his church to Kiev. He said this “great even” was made possible by the church in İstanbul, the mother of all Orthodox churches in the world. He noted that “the Kiev Metropolite was established by Constantinople, just like the St. Sophia Cathedral,” adding that it was named after the same saint as the first great church in İstanbul.

“We always remember the efforts of the church of Constantinople as a source of our baptism and we are grateful for that,” said Alexy II in his speech after Bartholomew. “However the Russian Church had to split from Constantinople due to historical conditions and events,” he said, adding it had become the church maintaining unity of the Slavic Orthodox populations.

Archimandrite Cyril of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who responded to journalists’ questions after the liturgy said the “problems between the churches are very special,” noting also that Sunday’s liturgy was a token of the church’s unity.

He said there were efforts to “heal” the current division, saying Bartholomew’s visit upon the invitation of President Yushchenko was indicative of the reconciliation efforts.

In response to a question on what could be a concrete solution for reconciliation, Archimandrite Cyril said a model was yet to be established but that a structure under the ecumenical church or establishing Ukraine as an independent church were options that had not been ruled out. He said there would be “one single model of reconciliation that is the common voice of the churches.”

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