The head of the world’s Orthodox churches has thrown down the gauntlet to Moscow, risking a split in eastern Christianity after its rich and powerful Russian branch repeatedly supported controversial Kremlin policies and blocked church unity in Ukraine.
Faced with a stalemate among three rival churches there, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has declared all three of them valid and urged them to create one independent body for all Ukrainian Orthodox believers.
This step, an unusually decisive act in a very slow-moving church, promptly brought accusations of heresy from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has overseen Orthodoxy in Ukraine since 1686.
Its Moscow Patriarchate also took the unusual step of breaking communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The Moscow Patriarchate, which claims over half of the world’s estimated 250 million to 300 million Orthodox believers, warned that Bartholomew’s step could lead to the biggest division in Christianity since the Great Schism of 1054 separated the Greek-speaking East based in Constantinople from Rome’s Latin-speaking West.