Russian Orthodox Church warns of protests in Ukraine

European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering (L) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (2nd R) pose with Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev during a meeting with religious leaders in Brussels May 11, 2009. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM POLITICS RELIGION)

A high-ranking Russian Orthodox cleric on Wednesday warned that protests would erupt in Ukraine if the country’s Orthodox Church is granted independence from Moscow.

The remarks came as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, considered the spiritual leader of global Orthodoxy, was expected to decide on granting independence to Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.

The Ukrainian Church is currently split into three bodies, the largest of which is technically overseen by the Patriarch of Moscow.

Hilarion Alfeyev, a bishop who heads the diplomacy department of the Moscow Patriarchy, predicted that protests would break out after a decision in favour of an autocephaly — or independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

“Of course, people will take to streets and protect their sacred sites,” Hilarion was quoted by Russian agencies as saying at a religious congress in Kazakhstan.

Hilarion said the decision would lead to Ukrainian authorities physically taking over Orthodox churches and monasteries currently used by clerics under the Moscow Patriarchate.

These include some of Ukraine’s most recognisable and popular landmarks, such as the Kievo-Pechersk Lavra in capital Kiev.

“We are seeing already that Orthodox churches in Ukraine are being overthrown and the worshippers are coming to their defence,” he said.

The move by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to support a unification of Ukrainian Orthodoxy under a new autocephaly is viewed by Moscow as an encroachment on its territory.

Last month the Russian Orthodox Church cut ties with its Istanbul-based rival and dropped Bartholomew from its prayers.

Some clerics heading parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine have called on parishioners to rally in defence of the churches.

The Metropolitan of Pochayiv recently said in an official statement posted on the website of Ukraine’s Pochayiv Lavra, a major Orthodox monastery in western Ukraine, that supporters should “be ready to defend” the monastery.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod, its decision-making body presided by Bartholomew, is currently meeting in Istanbul, and is expected to make a decision on Ukraine.