Key Ukrainian church gathering slated for next week

Ukraine's Orthodox clerics will gather for a meeting next week that is expected to form a new, independent Ukrainian church, the country's leader said Wednesday, as the authorities ramped up pressure on priests to support the move.

The Ukrainian church has been part of the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries, but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has pushed for the creation of an independent church as he faces March's presidential election.

The Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin have strongly condemned the move that would split the world's largest Orthodox, warning it could trigger sectarian violence.

Poroshenko, who has made an independent church one of the main slogans of his not-yet-announced re-election bid, said that Orthodox communities would gather on Dec. 15 to adopt the charter of the new Ukrainian church and choose its leader.

The newly formed community would then be expected to receive independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based institution considered the so-called "first among equals" of leaders of the world's Orthodox Churches that has already drafted a charter for an independent Ukrainian church.

Ukrainian authorities have sought to portray the Russian Orthodox in Ukraine as supporting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — claims that have been rejected by its clerics.

As church tensions grew, Ukrainian national security service (SBU) searched Russian Orthodox churches and the homes of Russian Orthodox priests in several cities, stepping up pressure on the clerics. The agency also has summoned dozens of priests for regular questioning.

The moves in the Ukrainian capital and in the provinces were part of a criminal investigation into inciting hatred and violence — the charges the priests dismissed as part of official campaign to coerce them into supporting the new independent Ukrainian church.

On Wednesday, the SBU announced that it questioned another 14 priests in Rivne and Sarny dioceses as part of a probe on charges of high treason and inciting religious hatred.

Tensions over the church come amid a bitter tug-of-war between the two neighbors that began with Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine. The rift escalated further after a naval incident on Nov. 25 in which the Russian coast guard fired on and seized three Ukrainian navy vessels. Poroshenko responded by declaring 30-day martial law in much of Ukraine.

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A previous version of this story was corrected to show that the date of the meeting as Dec. 15, not Dec. 5.