05/29/2014, 00.00
RUSSIA - UKRAINE
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Patriarch Kirill congratulates newly elected Ukrainian president, attacks Greek Catholics

by Nina Achmatova
Petro Poroshenko is an Orthodox Christian. The Russian Orthodox primate wants friendly relations with Ukrainian authorities, concerned about the uncertain future of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which is becoming increasingly "autonomous". Kirill describes Greek Catholics as Russophobes.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - Patriarch Kirill of Moscow sent a message of congratulations to Ukraine's president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, renewing his call for peace in that country. Poroshenko is known as a devout member of the Orthodox Church linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.

In view of this, some analysts see nothing strange in the fact that Kirill sent his best wishes, even before Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said he was still open to talks with the new Ukrainian authorities.

Others however believe Kirill's move to be an attempt by the Russian Church to maintain its influence and control over the Ukrainian Orthodox community, which is growing increasingly distant from Moscow.

"I hope that powers and authority, which come into your hands today, will serve for the benefit of Ukraine's east, west, north and south," said the telegram the patriarch sent on Tuesday. "I hope that bloodshed will stop forever, that no one will be oppressed or humiliated and that the life, worldview and cultural choice of each group of the country's population will be implemented."

Here the patriarch is referring to Ukraine's Russian-speaking community, which, according to local pro-Russian separatists and the Kremlin, is in danger of "genocide" because of the takeover in Ukraine by radical nationalists after the protests on Maidan Square.

The Patriarch said that he would pray so that "the hopes of Ukrainian Orthodox believers are realised" wherever they are, in the East or in the West of the country.

Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Patriarchate has provided cautious support for the Kremlin's line without however blatantly taking sides. Back in March for example, Kirill was missing from Putin's address before he signed Crimea's annexation to Russia.

For Nikolai Mitrokhin, from the Research Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen, the Russian Church has "major interests in Ukraine" and what matters is not so much the patriarch's best wishes to Poroshenko, but "the internal situation in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its current relations with the Moscow Patriarchate."

"Attitudes have changed," Mitrokhin said, and the divide is growing. Kirill "must act respectfully not only vis-à-vis the president, but also ordinary believers" on the entire territory of the former Soviet republic.

"The schism has not been formalized yet, but it has de facto occurred," writes Ayder Muzhdabaev, deputy editor of the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

In fact, the Ukrainian Canonical Orthodox Church appears to moving gradually away from Moscow, a fact surmised from conversations with several priests in Russia, in the Ukraine where "Many priests do not even mention the name of the Patriarch during the liturgical services," he explained, as well as from statements by ordinary members of the Church who "no longer recognise Moscow."

Undeniably, the Ukrainian Church, at least at a psychological level, is moving towards maximum independence and appears to be "cleaning up" its ranks of all those who are connected to Russia.

For Mitrokhin, one example is Metropolitan Agafangel of Odessa, officially on a "holiday", but in fact forced to flee with his secretaries after the attack against pro-Russians at Odessa's trade union building in early May.

Likewise, according to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian crisis has worsened relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican.

On 28 March 28, Kirill himself harshly attacked Ukraine's Greek Catholics (also called Uniate because of their union with the Roman pope), slamming their "direct involvement in political activities with statements against the Russian Orthodox Church."

This, he warned, casts "a very sad shadow" on relations between the Patriarchate and the Vatican. And, for Kirill, the Greek Catholics as Russophobes.

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