Ukrainian leaders celebrated the election of a new bishop separate from the Russian Orthodox Church on Saturday, though the latter has warned of “all-out persecution.”
Metropolitan Epiphanius was celebrated at St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev by hundreds of other bishops, priests, and church figures, The New York Times reported.
The newly independent Ukraine Orthodox Church is expected to officially be granted autonomy in January, despite the wishes and protests of the larger Russian Orthodox Church.
Ukrainian President Petro O. Poroshenko, quoting national poet Taras Shevchenko, declared that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup." He added that citizens should remember the day as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”
Poroshenko added that he will travel with Metropolitan Epiphanius in January to Istanbul, the church's historical foundations, to collect the autonomy order, known as the Tomos of Autocephaly.
“What kind of church is this?” the president prompted.
“This is a church without Putin. What kind of church is this? It is a church without Kirill,” he added, referring to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“What kind of church is this? It is a church without prayers for the Russian government and Russian military.”
The rift between the Russian and Ukrainian church, one of the biggest in the Christian world in centuries, formed in the wake of the continuing war in Ukraine against Russian separatists.
The violence in the country escalated in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea by Putin, which has been strongly condemned by Western world leaders.
Kirill, on the other hand, warned of "all-out persecution" for Russia-supporting Orthodox believers in Ukraine, however.
The Russian church leader sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as to European political leaders and Pope Francis, asking for protection of believers in Ukraine.
"The interference by the leaders of the secular Ukrainian state in church affairs has recently assumed the shape of undue pressure being exerted on the bishops and priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which can be defined as the start of all-out persecution," Kirill said in an official statement on December 14, as translated by Radio Free Europe.
The major disagreement already caused the Russian Orthodox Church to sever its ties with the central Orthodox Church community back in October. The move was in protest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople's decision to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as independent from Russia.
"We now stand before a new church reality: we no longer have a single coordinating center in the Orthodox Church and we must very clearly recognize that," Metropolitan Ilarion, the Moscow Patriarchate's head of external relations, said at the time.
"The Constantinople Patriarchate liquidated itself as such a center."
Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, commented on the issue in a letter back in September.
"We are deeply aware of the pain and trauma in the life of Orthodox people caused by ecclesial schism which weakens Orthodox witness and evangelism in society. Such pain and trauma have been wounds in the life of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine for several decades," wrote Tikhon in the letter that was shared with The Christian Post.
"Schism, division, and mutual antagonism are not only canonical problems — they are pastoral and spiritual challenges demanding the healing power of Christ and Christian faith."