KIEV, Ukraine — Over 1,000 believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church rallied outside the country’s parliament Thursday to protest its demand that their church’s name is changed to reflect its ties to Moscow.
Parliament passed a bill earlier Thursday demanding that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church explicitly indicate its link to the Moscow Patriarchate in its name. The church rejected the demand as unconstitutional.
The Ukrainian church has been part of the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries, but a bitter tug-of-war following Russia’s annexation of Crimea has encouraged moves within Ukrainian orthodoxy to create a separate church with no direct links to Moscow.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has strongly pushed for the creation of such a church, and on Saturday a new church independent from Moscow was created.
Ukrainian authorities have sought to portray the Moscow-linked church in Ukraine as supporting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — claims that have been rejected by its clerics.
“The church directed from the aggressor country must reflect that in its name,” said Ukrainian parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy.
Priests and parishioners who rallied outside the parliament building denounced the decision.
One of the protesters, Father Vadim, said that “our church has faced purges and humiliation.”
“Our only guilt is that we pray for the entire Orthodox Church and mention (Moscow) Patriarch Kirill in our prayers,” he said.
Father Kliment, the church’s spokesman, said it’s not going to meet the parliament’s demand that he described as unlawful. “The talk about the name change sounds clownish,” he said.
The Moscow Patriarchate strongly condemned the creation of the new Ukrainian church, warning it could trigger sectarian violence.
Speaking at Thursday’s news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin also voiced concern about possible violent disputes over church assets.
He denounced the creation of the new Ukrainian church, describing it as part of the Ukrainian president’s efforts to shore up his sagging popularity ahead of March’s election.
“It’s a direct meddling into religious life by the government, there has been nothing like that since the Soviet times,” Putin said. “It’s being done ahead of the election in order to further rupture ties between Russian and Ukrainian peoples.”