US urges respect for independent Ukraine church

Washington (AFP) –


The United States called Friday on all sides to respect the new independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, wading into a religious feud that has enraged Russia.

The leading authority in Orthodox Christianity, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, last week granted the right of autonomy to the Ukrainian church, which for more than 300 years has been under Moscow's control.

"The United States reiterates its strong support for religious freedom and the freedom of members of religious groups, including Ukraine's Orthodox community, to govern their religion according to their beliefs, free of outside interference," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

"We support Ukrainians' ability to worship as they choose and hope this will be respected by all.

"Tolerance, restraint and understanding are key to ensuring that people with different religious affiliations can live and prosper together in peace," he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier accused the United States of supporting the "provocation" led by the church's first among equals, Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew I.

The decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate will likely reduce Russian influence in Ukraine, where Moscow has backed separatists in the country's east and annexed Crimea in 2014.

The Russian church, whose Patriarch Kirill is a strong backer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has broken ties with the leading Orthodox authority over the decision, which it refuses to recognize.

Ukrainian leaders have been campaigning for independence for their church, but Russian church backers have described the move as a schism as significant as the 1054 split between Eastern and Western Christianity.