Over 500 churches leave Russian Church for new Ukrainian Orthodox Church

The Saint Sophia Cathedral of Kyiv, Ukraine. | YouTube/UATV English

More than 500 congregations have joined the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine in the past seven months after leaving the Russian-affiliated church.

Ukrainian Orthodox officials reported that in three months since the church was granted autocephaly, or leadership that does not need to answer to a higher ranked bishop, about 300 churches joined. In the four months after that, another 220 joined.

Paul Goble, an expert on Eurasian ethnic and religious issues whose work is syndicated by the Ukraine-based Kyiv Post, reported on his blog earlier this week about the movement of parishes and the significance of the numbers.

“The shift so far means that the Russian church in Ukraine has lost almost 5 percent of its congregations, a relatively small fraction of the total but significant given how much resistance the Moscow Patriarchate has sought to generate with flying squads to vote down proposals at the parish level to change,” wrote Goble.

“The map of the changes is also significant. Ever more of the most recent changes have been in the center and south of Ukraine and not just in the West as was the case at first.”

Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, seen as "first among equals" in the Orthodox Church, agreed to allow the creation of an independent church in Ukraine.

Many in the Eastern European nation requested the new church in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church announced in October that it was cutting ties with the central Orthodox Church community to protest the decision.

Metropolitan Ilarion, the Moscow Patriarchate's head of external relations, blamed Patriarch Bartholomew I in a statement last year.

"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," said Ilarion, as reported by ABC News. "The Constantinople Patriarchate liquidated itself as such a center."

For their part, the Trump administration supported the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo releasing a statement in October 2018 declaring it an example of religious liberty in action.

“We support Ukrainians' ability to worship as they choose and hope this will be respected by all. Tolerance, restraint, and understanding are key to ensuring that people with different religious affiliations can live and prosper together in peace,” Pompeo said.

“We urge Church and government officials to actively promote these values in connection with the move towards the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”   

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