UARU
How Ukraine’s Orthodox Church Received the Decree of Independence in Istanbul
8 January, 2019

The campaign for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church came to end when the decree of independence was handed over to the head of the new church.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presented Tomos of Autocephaly to Metropolitan Epiphanius during a service at St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey on January 6. The move officialized the split from the Russian church, which had jurisdiction over the Ukrainian church for more than 300 years.

Hromadske was present as Constantinople proclaimed the creation of the 15th autocephalous church in Orthodoxy on January 6, the day most Ukrainian Orthodox celebrate Christmas Eve.

“We did that!”

The ceremonial handover of Tomos of Autocephaly began on January 5, with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew signing a letter on autocephaly in the presence of politicians and hierarchs from Ukraine. The second day of the ceremony, which coincided with Orthodox Christmas Eve, held more religious rituals.

Metropolitan Epiphanius on the throne of the Patriarch of Constantinople during a prayer in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

The first churchgoers to arrive at the Cathedral of St. George saw an unusual picture for the church: amid the singing of monks, Metropolitan Epiphanius prayed on the throne of the Constantinople patriarchs. This is how the patriarchate paid tribute to the head of the autocephalous church.

People pray in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

People pray in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko arrived directly at the beginning of the service. Surrounded by a tight ring of security and journalists, he didn’t stop to make a statement. In response to a question from the crowd (A historical day today for Ukraine, isn’t it?), Poroshenko only smiled wryly and agreed: “absolutely, yes,” before making his way into the church, where he was surrounded by family and political allies.

Former President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko – a man who may not have finished the process of autocephaly, but certainly started it in 2008 – had earlier arrived at the cathedral.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during the divine service in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

“You see that the Ukrainian language is all over the city, it’s everywhere! We did that!” he said, appearing to be overwhelmed by emotion. Indeed, the Ukrainian language really could be heard across the Phanar district of Istanbul, where the Cathedral of St. George was located: at the temple cafe, on the street, in the church itself. Some people traveled from Ukraine for the ceremony, but Ukrainians living in Istanbul had also come.

Another significant group of people to participate in the celebration was the Greek community. These are the parishioners who could not miss an important church holiday – Orthodox Christmas – which coincided with this historical event for Ukraine. The third group of guests to visit the district were the tourists. Despite the significance of the occasion, the state security and many cameras, the patriarchate decided against closing the temple to those who came to Istanbul for the weekend. People from all over patiently stood in line at the cathedral, waiting to go inside to see what was happening there.

Maryna Poroshenko, wife of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, and her son during the divine service in St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

Fenced off from journalists, tourists, curious residents of Istanbul and church members who were late, clergymen, politicians and invited guests remained silent and participated in prayer. The rest of the temple resembled an eastern bazaar, where people were constantly on the move with no intention of stopping anytime soon. Amid all the motion, it wasn’t immediately apparent that the ceremony of handing over the Tomos was taking place right in the middle of the service, at a time when priests would usually preach after the gospel.

“Winter is past”

When Patriarch Bartholomew took the floor, he began with a passage from the biblical book Songs of Solomon, perhaps the most poetic book of the Holy Writ: “The winter is past; the rains are over and gone; Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come; the cooing of turtle-doves is heard in our land…”

From left to right: Ukraine’s third president Viktor Yushchenko, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Hennadiy Zubko and chairman of Ukraine’s parliament Andriy Parubiy, during the divine service in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

Patriarch Bartholomew then deciphered these images. Winter and rain are the difficulties that Ukrainian Orthodoxy experienced for centuries, while the flowers and turtle doves are hope for the future. He explained that Constantinople historically regarded Kyiv and Ukraine as its canonical territory, which was temporarily given to Moscow, under certain conditions. But times have changed. Bartholomew referred to the subordination of the Kyiv Metropolis to Moscow, which occurred under Patriarch Dionysius IV in 1687. But he noted that although Constantinople allowed the Patriarch of Moscow ordination over metropolitans in Kyiv, he never recognized Moscow as having canonical jurisdiction over Kyiv.

Ukrainians who live in Istanbul have been gathering in the city’s district of Phanar, where the Cathedral of St. George is located, since early morning, Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019.  Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

He also recalled the year 1325, when the Metropolitan Department was transferred to Moscow (before that it was located in Vladimir - ed.). He said followers in Kyiv have been striving for ecclesiastical independence not just for the past 30 years, but for centuries. This is discussed in the first Constitution of Ukraine of Pylyp Orlyk, which dates back to 1710. The text stated that "the Orthodox Church of Ukraine must remain under the Holy Apostolic altar in Constantinople."

Tourists wait in line near the St. George’s Cathedral, Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

“Today begins a new page in the history of Ukraine. The Church of Constantinople, which grants the ecclesiastical status of autocephaly to all new established churches, today entrusts it into your hands. (...) Today, officially and canonically, you become the 15th church in the blessed choir of autocephalous churches,” Bartholomew said to Metropolitan Epiphanius.

Metropolitan Oleksandr Drabinko (left to right), Metropolitan Emanuel, Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya during the divine service in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

Metropolitan Epiphanius thanked him in return and paid tribute to his predecessors and like-minded people from the recent past, including Mstyslav Skrypnyk – the emigrant metropolitan, who at the dawn of independence headed the autocephalous movement and was even declared patriarch. Epiphanius also thanked his mentor Patriarch Filaret, the head of the former Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and late Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan.

Parishioners and clergymen at the entrance of St. George’s Cathedral, Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

After the speeches, Bartholomew, with the exclamations of "Axios" – which translated from Greek means "worthy" – gave Epiphanius the long-awaited letter and gifted him with holy oil.

Some observed the divine service from balconies in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

After the ceremony, the service continued as usual, but the temple became much emptier. Many there had come for the handover of the Tomos. After the prayer was over, the hierarchs, along with politicians, including Poroshenko, went to the bank of the Golden Horn Bay in Istanbul – located five minutes on foot from the temple. The Patriarch with the bishops consecrated the waters of the bay. Some participants – just like during the religious holiday of Epiphany in Ukraine – began to jump into the water. Boats, ferries and ships from the different ends of the bay had already pulled up: many people wanted to have a look at those who decided to take the plunge into the bay on +3 degree day.

Patriarch Bartholomew began the ceremony of handing over the Tomos of Autocephaly with an excerpt from the biblical book Song of Solomon, Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Mikhail Markiv / POOL

This ceremony went by quickly, and the procession returned to the temple. However, the President, speaker, ministers and officials got into their cars and drove away – once again to celebrate.

Representatives of the Ukrainian delegation at the divine service in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

Another hero of the cathedral, Metropolitan Michael of Lutsk, was present at the proceedings. In the process of uniting the churches, this until recently little-known hierarch became the leader of an impressive group of bishops in the Kyiv Patriarchate, who saw him as the future primate of Ukraine’s new church. In response to questions about whether it was true that at the council, under pressure from Patriarch Filaret, he was forced to withdraw his candidacy and make way for Epiphanius (former pupil of Filaret), he joked and invited people to his episcopate to see how the church lives.

Patriarchs, politicians and parishioners on the bank of Golden Horn Bay, Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Patriarch with the bishops consecrated the waters of the bay. Photo: Mikhail Markiv / POOL

In the wake of the Tomos ceremony in Istanbul, Poroshenko described the proceeding as another act of declaring Ukraine’s independence and invited Bartholomew to visit the country.

Some parishioners bathed in the waters of Golden Horn Bay, Istanbul, Turkey, January 6, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / HROMADSKE

The next day, on January 7, Epiphanius held his first liturgy as the head of the local Orthodox Church of Ukraine - a Christmas liturgy at the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv where Tomos is now stored. The document is limited to the territory of the state, therefore the new church cannot establish bishops or parishes outside of Ukraine. The existing parishes of the new church are now subject to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

/By Saken Aymurzaev and Oleksandr Popenko