Ukraine Leader Hails Decision to Recognize Independence of Country's Orthodox Church

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday hailed a decision by the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate to agree to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church despite protests from Russia.

The decision to grant the Ukranian Orthodox Church autonomy is a huge blow to Moscow's spiritual authority in the Orthodox world and the Russian Orthodox Church called the move "catastrophic."

"A decision to grant Ukraine autocephaly has been made," Poroshenko said in televised remarks.

"This is a victory of good over evil, light over darkness," he said, adding Ukraine had been waiting for this "historic event" for more than 330 years.

The Orthodox church in Ukraine has been split between a branch whose clerics pledge loyalty to Moscow and one that is overseen by Patriarch Filaret.

The split has deepened following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of a separatist uprising in Ukraine's east in 2014.

The head of Ukraine's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Filaret, said Thursday's decision would allow his country to finally establish a united church in Ukraine.

Speaking to journalists outside Kiev's Vladimir Cathedral, he said dioceses that do not want to join the united Ukrainian Church would be allowed to operate in the country.

He said he would soon convene a meeting to address the issue of unification and elect a new patriarch.

"We want the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be united not only in appearance but also in spirit so that it could serve the Ukrainian people," Filaret said.

The Russian Orthodox Church condemned the decision to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

"Today the Patriarchate of Constantinople has taken catastrophic decisions -- first and foremost regarding itself and global Orthodoxy," a spokesman for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, Alexander Volkov, said in televised remarks.

"The Patriarchate of Constantinople has crossed a red line."

In September, the Russian Orthodox Church downgraded its ties with Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and threatened to sever ties altogether in the future.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who is seen as a strong ally of President Vladimir Putin, had fought hard to prevent pro-Western Ukraine from getting an independent church.

While Constantinople is the oldest Orthodox Church, Moscow is currently the most powerful with the largest number of worshipers.