In 2014, Russia prompted an international uproar when it annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, while also backing a separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine, part of a war that has claimed thousands of lives.

But now there’s another kind of Ukrainian territory in dispute: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and this time, it’s Russia that’s protesting.

On April 20 of this year, the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, headed by Bartholomew I, archbishop of Constantinople, decided to grant “autocephaly,” or complete Church independence, to the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine. When the decision is fully implemented, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would be free to govern itself entirely, electing its own patriarch and setting its own agenda.

The Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, meeting in Istanbul (the former Constantinople), voted October 11 to renew its decision.

Autocephaly would replace the current Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is in many ways beholden to the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow.

Many charge that the Russian Orthodox Church in recent decades has done the bidding of the Kremlin, particularly in its “Russkiy Mir” (“Russian World”) project to strengthen Russian identity at home and abroad. If that is true, autocephaly would be a blow not only for the patriarchate of Moscow but for Vladimir Putin himself.

Not surprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church has undertaken a campaign, both behind the scenes and in the media, to resist the change. The Moscow Patriarchate threatened to sever ties and break eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

It also declared that it would not participate in events headed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and would not even pray for Bartholomew during liturgies.

Recent reports of Russian hacking of the emails of Ecumenical Patriarchate officials and even the Vatican nuncio to Ukraine have suggested a more sinister side to Moscow’s campaign.

Long before Russia and Ukraine existed, there was “Kyivan Rus,” the first eastern Slavic state, and, at the time, the largest and most powerful state in Europe. Prince Vladimir ruled over this polytheistic society, but after seeing some of his pagan subjects killing minority Christians, he sent envoys abroad to investigate other religions.

They seemed most impressed with what they encountered in Constantinople, particularly the mystical form of worship they experienced in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia.

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they told Vladimir. “We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” This so convinced the prince that he decided to have himself and his nation baptized, an event that took place in the year 988.

Today, the churches in Russia and Ukraine both look to St. Vladimir as their spiritual progenitor. And, significantly, both regard Kyiv as the birthplace of Slavic Christianity.

So why is Moscow the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church? In the year 1240, Mongol invaders destroyed Kyiv. Leaders of the Church sought refuge in a relatively new principality to the north — Moscow. From that point on, the Kyivan Church was based in Moscow, and Kyiv itself would become a subordinate see.

George E. Demacopoulos, an Orthodox theologian teaching at Fordham University in New York, explained that “it’s not simply that a small piece of the Moscow Patriarchate wants autocephaly in Ukraine today,” but rather a symbolically important piece that represents the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy.

Full story at Angelus News.