Yepifaniy, head of Ukraine's new orthodox church

Kiev (AFP) –


Yepifaniy, who was on Saturday elected the head of Ukraine's new Orthodox church, is known as a critic of Moscow's religious influence in Ukraine and even helped Kiev's army in their struggle against the pro-Russian independence movement.

Yepifaniy, whose secular name is Sergiy Dumenko, was born in the southern, mostly Russian-speaking region of Odessa.

Despite a stellar lightning-quick career in his country's church, the metropolitan is, at 39, hardly a household name in Ukraine.

Unlike many fellow Ukrainian Orthodox dignitaries, he did not go to Russia for his studies but instead split his university years between Ukraine and Greece where he studied at the National University's philosophy faculty in Athens between 2006 and 2007.

The new church head is close to the patriarch of Kiev, Filaret, who was excommunicated by Moscow for starting a dissident church in Ukraine in 1992 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Filaret was rehabilitated by the Constantinople Patriarchate only last October.

Yepifaniy became Filaret's secretary in 2008, was made archbishop four years later and became metropolitan in 2013.

In December 2015, less than two years after the start of an unprecedented crisis between Ukraine and Russia, he published an article entitled: "Will Moscow's hand be rummaging around Ukrainian souls for much longer?"

In the paper, he accused the Kremlin of using Ukraine's Orthodox church -- loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate -- to "stifle" his country's independence.

According to media reports, Yepifaniy also helped organise humanitarian aid in favour of the Ukrainian army, which was in a pitiful state having faced off against a separatist armed rebellion in the east of the country since early 2014.

"He was among the first to help the army," Kostyantyn Kholodov, an Orthodox priest, wrote on Facebook.

"The first humanitarian shipment sent by the parishes in the Kiev region was put together thanks to the initiative of Metropolitan Yepifaniy," he wrote.

After being greeted in central Kiev on Saturday by a crowd chanting "Congratulations", the new church leader invited all his country's clergy and believers to join together.

"I would like to call on all our brothers, bishops and all believers to the newly created united Ukrainian Orthodox Church," Yepifaniy told the crowd outside the cathedral.

"The doors of our church are open to all."