The leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate says steps toward independence from Moscow must be carried out carefully to avoid giving the Kremlin a pretext for further Russian incursions into Ukrainian territory.
Patriarch Filaret's statement came after a synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople chaired by Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is considered the leader of the 300-million-strong worldwide Orthodox community, decreed on October 11 to "proceed to the granting of Autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine," RFE/RL reports.
The synod, however, made sure to warn against violence and attempted property takeovers.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Filaret talked in detail about the process of establishing a fully independent Ukrainian church
“Believers have the right to choose,” Filaret said. “If any parish wants to switch from the Moscow Patriarchate and join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, then two-thirds of the parish must vote for that transition.
“As of now, more than 150 parishes have joined us,” he said.
The most delicate issue surrounding the official separation is competing property-ownership claims of the Kyiv Patriarchate and Moscow-loyal church representatives in Ukraine.
Filaret insists there will be no illegal seizures of church buildings in Ukraine that are currently under the control of the Moscow-loyal church, which is under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“This is what Moscow wants – raider seizures that create the grounds for interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine,” Filaret told RFE/RL.
Filaret noted that the Russian government justified its 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by articulating a blanket assertion that Moscow has the right and the obligation of protecting and “defending the Russian-speaking population” anywhere in the world.
“Now they want to create conditions [where they can claim their activities are] for the protection of the Orthodox believers,” Filaret said. “Knowing this, we do not want to give them a reason for interference in our internal [affairs], and therefore there will be no forcible seizure of church buildings."
Nevertheless, Filaret rejected the Moscow Patriarchate’s claims to the famous Kyiv Pechersk Lavra – the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves. The almost 1,000-year-old monastery in Kyiv is a Ukrainian national monument, a center of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe, and the place of residence for the leader of the Russia-loyal church, Metropolitan Onufriy.
“Everyone knows that Kyiv Pechersk Lavra is a Ukrainian shrine that is the state’s property,” Filaret told RFE/RL. “Therefore, they can say anything, but the laws say a completely different thing.”
Still, Filaret insisted the Kyiv patriarchate does “not want to forcibly seize lavras or other monasteries or parishes” in Ukraine.
All such disputes, he said, should be resolved on a "voluntary basis.”
The 89-year-old Filaret had been a front-runner to head the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet era. But he was excommunicated in 1997 over his efforts to set up the Kyiv Patriarchate as an independent Ukrainian church following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine’s Moscow-loyal church, as well as the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, consider the Kyiv Patriarchate as schismatic and heretical.