“A great victory of the pious Ukrainian people over the Moscow demons! A victory of good over evil, of light over darkness!”

These are the unusually-medieval sounding words uttered by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in October, when the Istanbul-based Echumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople announced its decision to create a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent from the influence of the Russian church.

On December 15, in what was an historic day for Orthodox Christianity, it happened. A “Unification Gathering” was held in Kiev’s St Sophia Cathedral to officialize the split of the newly formed Ukrainian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Gathering resulted in the election of 39-year-old Metropolitan Epifaniy as head of the newly independent church. He will receive the Tomos – the decree of independence – from the hand of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople on January 6, the Orthodox Christmas Eve.

Needless to say, Constantinople’s decision and this week’s developments enraged representatives of the official Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which defined the Unification Gathering as “illegal” and reconfirmed their loyalty to the Russian Church.

The departure of Ukraine from under the Russian church’s wing was about more than a loss of face – the Moscow Patriarchate stands to lose about 30 million believers. But it also adds yet another dimension to the so-far intractable conflict between Kiev and Moscow.

A retaliatory spiral

As the original capital of Christian Orthodoxy, Istanbul – formerly Constantinople – retains the role of “first among equals” among the canonical Orthodox Churches. However, the Moscow Patriarchate represents the vast majority of the 300 million Orthodox Christians and has often contested Istanbul’s leadership.

The latest move has pushed Moscow over the edge. The Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church officially cut ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, blaming its representatives for “anti-canonical actions” and “encroaching on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The leader of the Russian Church, Patriarch Kirill, stated that Constantinople had no right to proclaim the independence of the Ukrainian church, since the latter was transferred by Patriarch Dionysus IV to the jurisdiction of the Russian Church in 1686.

According to the Union of Orthodox Journalists, an organization close to the Moscow Patriarchate, the granting of independence to the Ukrainian Church lacks legal grounds and “came as a bombshell for the Orthodox community.”

A spokesperson of the organization alleged that the Patriarchate of Constantinople was aiming to reestablish direct authority over the Ukrainian Church while ostensibly granting it formal independence. “No one for sure knows how the new structure will be independent from Constantinople,” the source told Asia Times.

Even so, immediately following his election, Patriarch Epifaniy reconfirmed his full independence and defined allegations of his submission to the Patriarch of Constantinople as rumors spread by enemies.

The new Ukrainian Church will now officially unite two previously unrecognized ecclesiastic bodies – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). They both de facto broke away from the UOC-MP when Ukraine acquired independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

While the Moscow-backed church still retains control over the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian parishes – including the UNESCO-recognized Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, the holiest of all Ukrainian monasteries – the rival Kiev Patriarchate has three times more believers and its influence has increased in the last few years, given rising Ukrainian patriotism and anti-Russian sentiment.

 Religious element in hybrid war

Against the backdrop of tensions between Russian and Ukraine – initiated in 2014 with the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and still ongoing in the form of a separatist war in the Donbass region – the Moscow Patriarchate has been increasingly perceived as one of Moscow’s instruments in its hybrid war against Ukraine.

Patriarch Kirill is a loyal ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose rule over Russia he has defined “a miracle of God.” The concept of a “Russian World” – the core of what some consider Putin’s neo-imperialism – is firmly based in the Orthodox faith.

Predictably, both sides have been unleashing verbal thunderbolts and allegations that extend well beyond the religious space.

Months ago, Kirill claimed the Ukrainian Church‘s pursuit of independence was a political move orchestrated by Kiev to strengthen its own power. Kremlin officials accuse the Ukrainian government of interfering in the church’s affairs, thus violating the Ukrainian constitution.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went as far as claiming that the Ukrainian Church declaring autocephaly was a provocation orchestrated with US support.

Pro-Western President Poroshenko emphasized the geopolitical importance of the split, which he defined as “an issue of national security and statehood.” “This is a church without Putin. This is a church without Patriarch Kirill. This is a church with no prayers for the Russian State or the Russian armed forces who kill Ukrainian people,” the president declared after the Unification Gathering.

The unpopular president is likely to capitalize on the newly won independence of the Ukrainian Church to raise his approval ratings ahead of next March’s presidential elections. Together with the armed forces and the Ukrainian language, Poroshenko has defined faith as one of the core pillars of contemporary Ukrainian identity.

Religious war?

Observers fear that the Orthodox schism can potentially trigger an escalation in the simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine by adding a religious element.

Ahead of the Unification Gathering, Ukrainian leaders accused Moscow-loyal priests of spreading pro-Russian propaganda and working against the interests of the State. The Kiev-Pechersjk Lavra was raided by the SBU, the Ukrainian security service, and its priest interrogated on suspicion of “inciting religious and inter-ethnic hatred.”

The Moscow Patriarchate accuses Ukrainian authorities of putting pressure on its priests. “The authorities of the secular State of Ukraine, who have been interfering in the affairs of the church for quite a while, have recently moved to exert brutal pressure on bishops and priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which makes it possible to say that a large-scale persecution has begun”, said Kirill in an official statement addressed to the Pope, the UN-Secretary General and other world leaders.

Russian state media have been adding fuel to the fire, spreading rumors that Ukrainian radicals were taking over and burning down Moscow-loyal churches in Ukraine.

In case of violations of Moscow-loyal believers’ rights, the Kremlin stated that Russia would not stand idly by. “Just as Russia defends the interests of Russians and Russian speakers – and Putin has spoken about this many times – Russia will defend the interests of the Orthodox,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in the run-up to the Gathering.

Even though Peskov clarified that this “defense” would be exclusively through diplomatic means, his remarks recall language used in the run-up to the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of fighting in Donbas.

According to Ukrainian scholar Vsevolod Samokhvalov, while the clerical elites might not have any interest in conflict, risks are rising of religious violence. “Unlike the war in Donbass, this type of conflict would be far less manageable and amenable to rational bargaining and negotiations,” he warned.