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Warnings from Moscow as Orthodox bishops to rule on Ukraine church

© AFP/File | Metropolitan Hilarion, a bishop in charge of diplomacy at the Moscow Patriarchate, has warned of protests if the Ukraine Orthodox Church is granted independence

ISTANBUL (AFP) - 

Orthodox clerics led by the Patriarch of Constantinople are set to decide the fate of Ukraine's Orthodox Church, with Moscow warning Wednesday that granting it independence would provoke street protests.

The Holy Synod, which decides on key matters for the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate, is expected to pronounce on whether to grant independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church this week.

This has inflamed tensions with the Patriarchate of Moscow, which technically oversees most of Ukraine's Orthodox parishes, and whose clerics have warned that independence would provoke a rift in global Orthodoxy and hinted at possible physical street violence in Ukraine.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is considered the first among equals and a spiritual leader for the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.

The synod began on Tuesday and items on its three-day agenda are not made public, but the decision on Ukraine's autocephaly, or independence, is widely expected.

The Ukrainian Church is currently split into three bodies, the largest of which is technically overseen by the Patriarch of Moscow, a fact the Kiev government considers unacceptable given its ongoing war with Russia-backed rebels in the east.

Ukraine's second-largest Orthodox church split from Moscow in the 1990s and is headed by the charismatic Patriarch Filaret, who is reviled by Moscow and is a foremost proponent of a new independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Constantinople's Patriarch Bartholomew last month sent two envoys to Kiev, one of whom indicated in a meeting with President Petro Poroshenko that the process of granting independence, or autocephaly, was "on the finishing line".

The Moscow Patriarchate has cut ties with Constantinople over the affair, which it considers an unjust encroachment on its spiritual territory.

On Wednesday, an influential cleric went so far as to warn that parishioners will not hand over churches to a new Orthodox institution willingly.

"Of course, people will take to streets and protect their sacred sites," Hilarion, a bishop in charge of diplomacy at the patriarchate, was quoted by Russian agencies as saying at a religious congress in Kazakhstan.

Ukrainian authorities and many worshippers are wary of the influence of Russian Patriarch Kirill, who has supported the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the separatists in the east of the country.

If the synod in Istanbul makes a favourable decision, a special assembly of Orthodox clerics in Kiev will choose the head of the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which could take place within 10 days.

- 'Defence' of monasteries -

Losing Ukrainian churches would be a huge blow for the Russian Orthodox Church.

About a third of parishes under the umbrella of the Moscow Patriarchate are in Ukraine, and losing them would undermine Kirill's image as a spiritual leader for Eastern Orthodoxy.

Hilarion said a decision for independence would lead to Ukrainian authorities physically taking over Orthodox churches and monasteries currently used by clerics under the Moscow Patriarchate.

These include some of Ukraine's most recognisable and popular landmarks, such as the Kievo-Pechersk Lavra in the capital Kiev.

"We are seeing already that Orthodox churches in Ukraine are being overthrown and the worshippers are coming to their defence," he said.

Some Russian websites have been circulating misleading information about Ukrainian nationalists storming the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, something even the Moscow Patriarchate was forced to brand fake news.

Clerics heading parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine have however called on parishioners to rally in defence of the churches.

The Metropolitan of Pochayiv said in a recent statement posted on the website of Ukraine's Pochayiv Lavra, a major Orthodox monastery in western Ukraine, that supporters should "be ready to defend" the monastery.

© 2018 AFP