Moscow Patriarchate appeals for Orthodox unity in Ukraine

Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church, on an official visit to Ukraine, has appealed to Orthodox believers there who have broken with the Moscow Patriarchate to return to its jurisdiction.

"There are no barriers preventing the return to ecclesial communion, to return to that place where, as in Heaven, 'there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance'," said a statement issued after a 26 July meeting in Kiev of the Russian Orthodox Church's bishops' synod, chaired by Kirill.

The statement was quoting a text from Luke's Gospel (15:7) in the New Testament of the Bible.

The Orthodox church in Ukraine divided after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are now several different Orthodox churches in Ukraine, including one that comes under the Moscow Patriarchate, and another called the Kiev Patriarchate, not recognised by any of the world's canonical Orthodox churches.

The Moscow-linked church accounts for a significant part of the membership of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine, once the centre of a Slavic state, Kievan Rus, is seen as the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy because of the 10th-century event Baptism of Rus, when Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity.

At a 28 July service in Kiev, before returning to Moscow, to mark the Baptism of Rus in 988, Kirill spoke of the spiritual ties that bind Russia and Ukraine, separate countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"There were sinners, there were crimes, there were weaknesses in the lives of the people, but we carried through a thousand years, and continue to carry the great ideal of Holy Rus," he said in his sermon at the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, one of Orthodoxy's holiest places.

In comments at the monastery, Kirill denied that he plans to take away the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and again called on those who had broken away to return.

The Kiev Patriarchate is led by Filaret Denisenko, a metropolitan in the Moscow Patriarchate during the Soviet era. It reacted angrily to the bishops' statement and said there is no schism in Ukraine, only jurisdictional division.

Kirill was enthroned as Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in February 2009 and first visited Ukraine later that year, also to coincide with the Baptism of Rus.

That took place when Viktor Yushchenko, a leader of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004-2005, who had repeatedly called for a unified Ukrainian Orthodox church independent of Moscow, was still president.

Ukraine's current president, Viktor Yanukovich, who, in February elections, defeated Yulia Tymoshenko, another Orange Revolution leader, is seen as being aligned with Moscow.

On this trip, which began on 20 July, Patriarch Kirill focused on Odessa, the Black Sea resort, and Dnepropetrovsk, an industrial centre. Both are strongholds of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Patriarch Kirill flew to Crimea briefly on 23 July to meet Yanukovich, the day before Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived there for a meeting with the Ukrainian president.

Afterwards, in an interview with the Rossiya 24 television channel, Kirill praised Yanukovich as "a very religious man". In his sermon in Kiev, however, Kirill said that believers need to be above earthly politics.


By Sophia Kishkovsky