Ukrainian Orthodox Church breaks away from Russian influence

Patriarch Filaret head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church

If they decide at a general meeting that they want to voluntarily join the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine, they will be accepted into the structure of the single Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has signed the Tomos of autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) at St. George's Cathedral in Istanbul.

Constantinople's recognition of an autonomous church is a boost to Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, who is facing a tough battle for re-election in March.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been under the Moscow Patriarchate for centuries.

"The pious Ukrainian people have awaited this blessed day for seven entire centuries", Bartholomew said in his address on Saturday.

The patriarch, considered "first among equals" in Orthodox Christianity, said Ukrainians could now enjoy "the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention".

Due to a difference in calendars, January 6 marks Christmas Eve for many Orthodox churches and Christmas is celebrated on January 7 rather than December 25. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill made a last ditch appeal against the process last month.

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. "It was signed in breach of canonicity and this is why it has no power", he said in a Telegram message, according to Reuters news agency.

Earlier this year, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople overruled its decision dating back to 1686 to transfer its jurisdiction over Kievan Orthodox churches (known as the Kievan Metropolis) to Moscow.

Yepifaniy, whose secular name is Sergiy Dumenko, has been a critic of Moscow's religious influence in Ukraine and has supported Kiev's army against pro-Russian rebels.

The Russian Orthodox Church cut ties with the Constantinople Patriarchate in protest at the move, which dealt a huge blow to Moscow's spiritual authority in the Orthodox world.

Ukraine and Russian Federation have been at loggerheads since 2014, when Kiev street protests calling for Ukraine's integration with Europe led to the fall of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.

Following Bartholomew I's October decision for independence, the Russian church severed ties with Istanbul, the center of the Orthodox world.

Russian Federation long opposed such efforts by the Ukrainians for an independent church, which intensified after Russian Federation seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and began supporting separatists shortly thereafter in parts of Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

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