Ukraine's newly independent church holds 'historic' first service

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attended the service in Kiev's most ancient church, the 11th-century Saint Sophia's Cathedral (AFP Photo/Sergei SUPINSKY)

Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine's newly created independent Orthodox Church held its first service in Kiev on Monday after a historic break with the Russian Orthodox Church that has enraged Moscow.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attended the service in Kiev's most ancient church, the 11th-century Saint Sophia's Cathedral, as Ukrainian Orthodox believers celebrated Christmas Day according to the Julian Calendar.

The service came a day after the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew based in Istanbul handed over a formal decree that finalised recognition of Ukraine's new Church.

"We broke the last bonds that tied us to Moscow with its fantasies about Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church," Poroshenko said after the service.

Clerics showed worshippers in the cathedral the decree that formally sealed a break with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Metropolitan Yepifaniy, the 39-year-old leader of the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, led the service, which he called "a truly historic event."

"The doors of our united Orthodox Church are open to everyone," he told the assembled believers.

"There is still a lot of joint work ahead to strengthen this unity."

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill earlier Monday held a Christmas service at Moscow's Church of Christ the Saviour while President Vladimir Putin attended a church in his hometown of Saint Petersburg.

In an interview with Russian channel Rossiya 1, Patriarch Kirill slammed the new Ukrainian church as "a union of two schismatic groups" and accused the Kiev authorities of destroying the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

"This is turning into a theatre of the absurd," he said.

For more than 300 years the Ukrainian Church was split into three, with one Church overseen by the Patriarch of Moscow. The Kiev government now considers this unacceptable given its ongoing war with Russia-backed rebels in the east that has already killed more than 10,000 people.

The Russian-controlled branch of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has refused to participate in establishing a unified church and has broken off ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The Constantinople Patriarch's decision to recognise the Ukrainian Church's independence from Russia was a huge blow to Moscow's spiritual authority in the Orthodox world.

The Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly voiced fears that Ukraine will make legal moves or even use force to seize churches and monasteries that it currently controls, and some priests have told parishioners to be ready to defend them.

Poroshenko has stressed that the government will respect the choice of believers who remain faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate.