Thousands of people demonstrate in support of the Russian-backed Ukrainian church – .

Thousands of people demonstrate in support of the Russian-backed Ukrainian church – .

Kiev (AFP)

The Russian-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Tuesday gathered thousands of its faithful in a show of force before a historic visit by its rival and leader of the Orthodox world, Patriarch Bartholomew I.

More than 20,000 believers marched through Kiev despite coronavirus restrictions to mark the 1033rd anniversary of the Christianization of Rus, a term for East Slavic lands in the Middle Ages.

Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I recognized an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church in 2019, after Kiev sought to sever religious ties with Russia following conflict in the east of the country. The movement was condemned by Moscow.

The main authority of Orthodox Christianity is due to visit Ukraine next month to mark the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence.

Analysts said the mass rally in the Ukrainian capital was meant to be a show of force by the loyal Moscow branch of the church, which was severely weakened by the establishment of the new church.

Kiev-based analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told AFP that the Moscow-backed church wanted to show “that it is the most powerful church in Ukraine.”

He said the church “was fighting for its survival” and wanted to send “a signal to Moscow: do not forget us”.

Moscow controlled part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for over 300 years, but Bartholomew I’s decision created an independent, unified Ukrainian church.

The Russian-aligned Ukrainian church – which still has a large number of parishes in the country – has severed ties with Constantinople, saying it will not participate in the creation of a new church.

The move marked a new episode in the political, cultural and social divorce between Kiev and Moscow since Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula in 2014.


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