KIEV • Ukrainian Orthodox Christian priests selected a 39-year-old bishop to lead their newly independent Church, cementing a split from the previous Russian hierarchy in a step that is further straining relations between the two former allies.
Priests gathered in Ukraine's prominent 11th-century St Sophia Cathedral early last Saturday, and for eight hours, celebrated the liturgy and discussed the status of the new Church, and elected as leader Metropolitan Epifaniy of the Kiev Patriarchate Church.
The move, sanctioned in October by the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Istanbul, is the latest step in Ukraine's efforts to free itself from its neighbour's orbit.
Ties have disintegrated since protesters booted out the country's Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, starting a chain of events that has rekindled memories of the Cold War.
"What kind of Church is this?" said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who participated in the assembly and went to speak to thousands of people outside the cathedral to present the Metropolitan. "This is a Church without Putin."
Since the Ukrainian revolution, Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, has annexed Crimea from Ukraine and fomented a conflict near the two nations' border.
Most recently, it fired on Ukrainian naval vessels that it accuses of illegal border crossings in the Sea of Azov, seizing them, along with their crews, in a move that has been condemned by the West.
Ukraine has followed the United States and the European Union in sanctioning Russia in recent years, and, last month, it banned entry to Russian males aged 16 to 60.
Mr Poroshenko is portraying the Church schism as an "issue of national security" and is hoping it will help revive his rock-bottom popularity ratings before elections next March. His campaign slogan is "Army, language, faith". "The independent status of the Ukrainian Church is another declaration of independence," he said this month.
"I guarantee that the state will respect the choice of those who will remain in the Church structure that will continue to be united with the Russian Orthodox Church," Mr Poroshenko said when presenting the leader of the new Church last Saturday. "In the same way, I guarantee that the state will protect the rights of the priests and congregation who will choose to leave the Church of the Moscow Patriarchy."
Choosing a leader for a new independent Church to end the dominance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchy is not just a matter of regional political tensions. While strained relations have accelerated the process, the move marks the culmination of almost three decades of government and diplomatic efforts.