İstanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch signs decree granting Ukrainian church independence

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians worldwide, on Saturday signed a decree of independence for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, effectively splitting it from the Moscow Patriarchate, in a move that has incensed Moscow, Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported.

The signing of the "Tomos" in Istanbul's St George’s Cathedral on Saturday by Patriarch Bartholomew I has officially formalised the Ukrainian church's independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, severing the tie between the churches dating back to 1686.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to warn of possible bloodshed in his annual news conference following the move. Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. 

The move forces Ukrainian clerics to pick sides amid fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed rebels, Kathimerini said.

Last month, Ukrainian Orthodox leaders elected Metropolitan Epiphanius to lead the new, unified church which split from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian church has severed ties with Istanbul, the center of the Orthodox world.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has campaigned for the creation of the new church, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before the ceremony on Saturday.

Poroshenko is also set to attend a ceremonies on Sunday, pro-government Yeni Şafak daily reported, during which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will hand over the decree to the Metropolitan Epiphanius.