MOSCOW (AP) — The head of the Russian Orthodox Church chaired a meeting of top priests Friday to decide how to respond to the move by Orthodox Christianity's leading body to send two envoys to Ukraine.
The Russian church claims authority over the church in Ukraine. But many Ukrainian parishes are rejecting the Moscow Patriarchate and have formed a separate church that is pushing for recognition as a self-governing, or autocephalous, institution. The church in Ukraine has been tied to Moscow Patriarchate for hundreds of years.
Calls for self-government have accentuated since Moscow's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and its support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
Last week, those advocating self-government received a fillip when the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate said it was sending two bishops to Ukraine as a step toward declaring ecclesiastical independence for the church there.
The move by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is considered the "first among equals" of Eastern Orthodox clerics, followed a meeting last month with Russian Orthodox Church's head, Patriarch Kirill, which failed to narrow their differences.
Patriarch Kirill strongly condemned the move while opening Friday's meeting of the Holy Synod and compared it 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 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."