Orthodox leader hints at independence from Moscow

15:45, 25 July 2008
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And calls for unity among Ukraine`s churches

The spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox faith called Friday for religious unity within Ukraine and carefully hinted at possible independence for the local church, which is trying to move away from the powerful Russian patriarch, according to AP.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople is visiting Ukraine for three-day celebrations marking the 1,020th anniversary of this region`s conversion to Christianity.

However, the event risks turning into a fierce political battle between Kiev, which is eager to win independence from Moscow for the local church, and the powerful Russian Orthodox Church fighting to maintain influence over this nation of 46 million.

"We came to here to pray together with you for the unification of all Orthodox Christians in Ukraine into a single church, a church of your people, a church of your country," Bartholomew said at a festive welcoming ceremony at the airport. "We came as angels of peace, those who strive for unity, freedom and peace."

In a bow to Moscow, Bartholomew also thanked Russian Patriarch Alexy II for the opportunity "to mark this wonderful occasion together."

Bartholomew`s visit is an important victory for Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who is trying to establish an independent Orthodox church in his country. It is the first time the spiritual leader of the world`s Orthodox believers has visited Ukraine in 350 years.

Bartholomew`s references to "a church of your country" and "angels of freedom" were interpreted by Ukrainians as support for their own church.

Representatives of the Russian Orthodox church complained they were shut out of the preparations. Alexy II is expected to arrive at the festivities Saturday.

Experts say that the Ukrainian church is bound to attain independence in the long run. However, an abrupt decision could lead to a deep split between Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims 95 million out of the world`s 250 million Orthodox believers and is the biggest in the world.

Efforts to win autonomy have split the Ukrainian church, with two breakaway churches setting themselves up since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Both churches are smaller than Ukraine`s Russian-affiliated church, which claims up to 28 million believers here.


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