Ukrainian Orthodox priests arrived in Kiev on Saturday for a historic council to create a new national church – a move condemned as schism by Russia.
This comes after the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodoxy, recognised the independence of the Ukrainian Church from Moscow.
It also fears that its churches in Ukraine could be seized.
Despite Russia banning priests from the branch of the Church loyal to Moscow from the event, two of its bishops were reportedly seen arriving for the council in Kiev.
President Petro Poroshenko also came as an honorary guest, reportedly asking crowds outside to “stand and pray for a Ukrainian church to be created today”.
What about the council in Kiev?
It will be held in the ancient St Sophia’s Cathedral – one of Kiev’s best known landmarks.
Ukrainian clerics of different Orthodox denominations – including some bishops from the Moscow branch – will be electing a leader of a new church.
Ahead of the meeting, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called on religious and world leaders to protect believers and clergymen in Ukraine from what he called persecution.
What is the dispute all about?
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been under the Moscow Patriarchate for centuries.
But tensions within the church mounted after Ukraine became independent in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today there are currently three Orthodox Church branches based in Kiev:
- The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate)
- The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)
- The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
The drive for Ukrainian Orthodox independence intensified in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Russia-backed separatists seized a big swathe of territory in eastern Ukraine.
The Moscow branch of the Ukrainian Church has denied being a tool of the Kremlin, and says it has tried to bring about peace in eastern Ukraine.
Earlier this year Constantinople – seen as the first among equals in the world’s Orthodoxy – overruled its decision dating back to 1686 to transfer its jurisdiction over Kievan Orthodox churches (known as the Kievan Metropolis) to Moscow.
Now Moscow fears losing many of its 12,000 parishes in Ukraine.
Constantinople holds sway over more than 300 million Orthodox Christians across the world.
The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the biggest.