Ukrainian Orthodox Church gets 'autocephaly' status

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The drive for Ukrainian Orthodox independence intensified in 2014, when Russian Federation annexed Crimea and Russia-backed separatists seized a big swathe of territory in eastern Ukraine.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has handed over a "tomos" of autocephaly to Metropolitan Epifaniy of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

In a solemn ceremony filled with liturgical singing, the leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I, signed a decree known as a "tomos" that grants autocephaly, or independent national religious authority, to the Ukrainian church.

The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was created following the results of the December 15 All-Ukrainian Orthodox Unity Council, where Epiphanius, the metropolitan of Pereiaslav and Bila Tserkva, was elected primate of the local Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Before the signing of the document, the head of the OCU, Metropolitan Epiphanius, Metropolitan Oleksandr (Drabynko) and Metropolitan Simeon (Shostatsky) transferred to the OCU from the UOC of Moscow Patriarchate, and Metropolitan of Lutsk and Volynsky Mykhailo (Zinkevych) from the UOC of Kyiv Patriarchate took part in the collective prayer.

"The pious Ukrainian people have awaited this blessed day for seven entire centuries", Patriarch Bartholomew said. He claimed they could now enjoy "the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention", as cited by AP.

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In November, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Bartholomew signed a cooperation agreement.

The decree opens the way for Ukraine's Orthodox Church to be recognised by other branches of orthodoxy and other churches. "It was signed in breach of canonicity and this is why it has no power", Vladimir Legoida, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Synodal Department for Church-Society and Media Relations, posted in Telegram messenger.

The decision may the be beginning of a lasting schism in the global Orthodoxy and risks triggering conflicts among Ukraine's Orthodox believers, observers say.

The Ukrainian church has been under the jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarchate since 1686, and its independence is a heavy blow to Moscow.

Ukraine and Russian Federation have been at loggerheads since 2014, when Kiev street protests calling for Ukraine's integration with Europe led to the fall of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.

Turkey's Orthodox community on Sunday marked the baptism of Jesus Christ with a special mass held at Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, followed by men diving into Istanbul's cold waters to retrieve a cross thrown by Patriarch Bartholomew I. Many Russians oppose the split, an opinion that hardened after fighting in 2014 when Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

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