Tensions rise over Ukraine's new independent church

Kiev (AFP) –


Bitter divisions among Ukraine's religious leaders were laid bare Wednesday when honorary Patriarch Filaret accused the young head of the newly created united church of governing single-handedly despite earlier agreements.

For more than 300 years, Moscow controlled part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church but Kiev last year won religious independence in a huge coup for the ex-Soviet country's pro-Western authorities.

The 90-year-old Patriarch Filaret had been widely tipped to become the head of the united church but Metropolitan Yepifaniy, 40, was then suddenly chosen to the post last December.

Filaret, who headed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate independent of Moscow, called a news conference Wednesday to claim that Metropolitan Yepifaniy had reneged on agreements to lead the newly-created church together.

"There was an agreement that I continue to govern the church in Ukraine together with Yepifaniy while he will represent the church abroad," he told reporters.

He claimed that Ukraine's outgoing president Petro Poroshenko was part of the agreement. "We did not put it in writing because I trusted both the president and Yepifaniy. They lied to me," he added.

Filaret warned that the in-fighting threatened the future of the country's independent church.

"In order to preserve the church, agreements have to be kept," he said.

Filaret said that at first he tried to coach the young cleric but Metropolitan Yepifaniy refused to heed his advice and the two no longer speak now.

He added that he had a meeting with President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky who said he would not interfere in religious affairs.

Until recently the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was divided into three branches: one whose clerics pledged loyalty to Moscow, one loyal to Kiev and overseen by Patriarch Filaret and the smaller Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church.

But early this year the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognised Kiev's religious independence, allowing for the creation of a unified Ukrainian Church.