Ukraine church head, 89, ready to rise above Russia rift

3 min

Kiev (AFP)

Patriarch Filaret is months away from turning 90 but the Kiev cleric has told AFP he will not flinch in leading the Ukrainian Orthodox Church through a historic break with Moscow.

The Ukrainian branch of Orthodoxy has been under Moscow's control for the last 300 years but this month the leading authority in Orthodox Christianity granted it the right to independence.

The decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople drew cheers from Kiev, fury from Moscow, and marked the culmination of more than two decades of work by Filaret.

Now the cleric, excommunicated and defrocked by Moscow over his independence drive but reinstated by Constantinople, says he will seek formally to lead a unified Ukrainian Church.

"I haven't been fighting for over 25 years, from the start of (Ukrainian) independence, only to withdraw from the service of this Church before it has acquired the formal status it deserves," he told AFP.

"Of course" he will put himself forward to lead the unified Church when it its existence is formalised, he said in an interview at his residence in central Kiev.

Though slower of movement and speech than he once was, the charismatic Patriarch Filaret appears younger than his 89 years.

He leads the Sunday service in the Saint Volodymyr Cathedral in Kiev most weeks and travels frequently.

"I haven't thought about it, I'm not thinking about it," he said when asked whether he was considering suggesting a younger candidate for the role.

"While God gives me strength, I must serve the Church."

Filaret served in the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet Union and was the influential Metropolitan of Kiev for over thirty years.

But in 1990 he lost a struggle to lead the body to Patriarch Alexei II, who occupied the position until current Moscow Patriarch Kirill.

After the collapse of the USSR the following year, Filaret began to push for an independent Ukrainian Church. In 2014, he embraced and found a political ally in the new Ukrainian government following the ousting of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.

- 'Religious war' -

As political ties between Kiev and Moscow nosedived over Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine, the movement gained strength.

Before the independence decision by the Istanbul-based Constantinople Patriarchate, an influential Moscow cleric warned that parishioners would not hand over churches to a new Orthodox institution willingly.

But Filaret insists there will be no violence when individual parishes decide whether to join the new unified church.

"Around two in three dioceses of the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian Church will transfer to the (unified) Ukrainian Church," according to research carried out by his branch.

He insisted this would take place "without violence" even with historically important sites, such as the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery that the Moscow branch currently uses.

"The Lavras (large and important monasteries) are sacred Ukrainian sites. Of course they must belong to the Ukrainian Church," he said.

The Kremlin has pledged to protect the interests of Russian Orthodox believers in Ukraine, while Kiev has accused Moscow of attempting to stir up "religious war".

It is unclear exactly when Constantinople's decision will come into force, but Filaret is convinced it will be by early next year.

"There is no other option," he said.

"Moscow will try its usual tactics -- intimidation and defrocking."

The Russian Orthodox Church has said it would cut ties with Constantinople, which it accused of supporting a "schism".

Filaret, however, says Russia has only harmed itself by pulling away from the Orthodox governing body.

Patriarch Kirill "will not communicate with me. And not only with me but with the Ecumenical Patriarch. He will be the architect of his own isolation."