MOSCOW – The Russian Orthodox Church on Friday announced a rebuff to the leader of the worldwide Orthodox community, saying it would not participate in events headed by the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate due to a dispute over control of the church in Ukraine.
The church also announced at a meeting of top priests that it would not even remember Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in its prayers.
The meeting was called in order to respond to the Ecumenical Patriarchate's decision last week to allow the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to be autocephalous — ecclesiastically independent. The Russian church, the world's largest Orthodox communion, fiercely opposes the decision.
Church spokesman Metropolitan Ilarion insisted that Friday's response by the leaders of Russian orthodoxy "do not mean a complete break of the Eucharistic communion."
However, it is a significant show of resistance to the authority of Bartholomew, who is considered the "first among equals" among Orthodox leaders.
According to the Interfax news agency, Ilarion warned of a split in the church if efforts to move the Ukrainian church beyond Russian authority continue.
"We will be forced to completely break the Eucharistic communion and this will mean Constantinople patriarch, who often positions himself as the head of the planet's 300 million Orthodox, will no longer be its head," he said.
The church in Ukraine has been tied to the Moscow Patriarchate for hundreds of years, although many parishes have split off over the past two decades to form a schismatic church.
Calls for self-government have increased since Moscow's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and its support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill strongly condemned the dispatch of the envoys while opening Friday's meeting of the Holy Synod. He compared the move to the Ecumenical Patriarchate's actions during the split in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1920s.
Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that answers to Moscow Patriarchate, told the Holy Synod via a video call that the bishops sent by Bartholomew I had already arrived in Ukraine and had established contacts with the heads of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has urged the Istanbul-based Patriarchate to grant Ukrainian Orthodox clerics full ecclesiastical independence from Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Friday that "worrying information about possible decisions regarding the church in Ukraine causes concern."
Peskov noted that "the state can't interfere in the church affairs," but added that "preservation of the Orthodox unity is the only preferable scenario for Moscow, as well as for the entire Orthodox world."