ISTANBUL — A senior official in the Orthodox Church says “there’s no going backwards” in granting Ukrainian clerics full ecclesiastic independence from the Russian Orthodox Church to which they have been tied for hundreds of years.
However, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, who is part of a committee dealing with the Ukrainian question, told The Associated Press that the final step of the procedure has yet to be reached.
His comments came as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I welcomed Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Istanbul on Friday.
Ukraine’s president has launched a campaign to persuade Bartholomew, seen by many as the first among equals of Orthodox leaders, to accept Ukraine’s request.
Ukrainian politicians see a declaration, known as a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” as a key step in consolidating their country’s national identity.
Russian religious leaders see it as an attack on Orthodox unity and are fighting to stop it.
“Today, the Ecumenical Patriarch repeated in person, in this meeting of the two primates, that the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is reached and we are not going backwards,” Emmanuel said. “So we are following this decision, we are implementing the decision.”
He added: “We have not reached the end of the procedure. The Tomos, which is the decision that is issued, is at the last stage of this implementation. But we have still some work to do and this is what the Ecumenical Patriarchate is coordinating.”
Earlier this week, The Associated Press reported on a Russian digital espionage campaign targeting Bartholomew’s top aides in the midst of the religious tussle between Kiev and Moscow over the religious future of Ukraine.
The AP found that the same hackers charged with intervening in the 2016 U.S. presidential election also spent years trying to eavesdrop on Bartholomew’s entourage.
The granting of the “Tomos of Autocephaly” would be a momentous step, eroding the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has positioned itself as a leading player within the global Orthodox community.
Russia’s Tass news agency, meanwhile, quoted Kirill after the meeting with Bartholomew that “the organization of the Orthodox churches is such that not one church can make a decision that contradicts the position of the other churches. Therefore we are simply programmed for cooperation.”
Orthodox authorities in Moscow have accused the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of supporting the efforts to break the recognized Orthodox Church’s subordination to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, said in April that he is not participating in the process “because we believe that it is the internal affair of the Orthodox Churches,” but said unifying the different Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine is an important step to overcome the split among the Ukrainian Orthodox believers.
“It is also important for destroying church isolation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the framework of world Orthodoxy. We hope that in this way it will be possible to heal the wounds of division in the Ukrainian Orthodoxy. In this regard, we are positively evaluating all efforts for the possible recognition of the united Orthodox Church of Ukraine by the Patriarchate of Constantinople,” Shevchuck said.
In a May 30 meeting with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Pope Francis said the Catholic churches must not meddle in the internal affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“This is my attitude and the attitude of the Holy See today. And those who meddle are not obeying the Holy See,” the pope said.
Crux staff contributed to this report.