We are facing the biggest split in Christendom for 1,000 years – and Western Christians have barely noticed it. That, at least, is the view of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is currently engaged in a dispute that could tear apart the Orthodox world.

The Russians are outraged because the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has sent two exarchs (envoys) to Ukraine. He has asked them to prepare the way for a “tomos of autocephaly” – a declaration of independence for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians.

The Russians consider this a gross violation of Church law. Russian Orthodoxy was born in Ukraine in the 10th century and the tomos would sever its historical roots. The Moscow Patriarchate also stands to lose millions of followers just as it is seeking to project itself as the world’s dominant Orthodox Church.

According to senior Russian official Metropolitan Hilarion, Moscow will respond to the tomos by breaking off communion with Constantinople. “Now the Patriarchate of Constantinople pose as a sort of leader of the 300 million-strong Orthodox population of the globe and the Patriarch of Constantinople is perceived as almost the Orthodox pope,” he said on Russian state television. “But at least a half of this 300 million-strong population will no longer recognise him even as the first in the family of Orthodox Churches.”

How did it come to this? From the 10th century onwards, the Church in Kiev was under the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s jurisdiction. But in 1686, it was absorbed into the Moscow Patriarchate. Orthodox Christians in Ukraine have split into three main groups, one under the Moscow Patriarchate, another centred on Kiev and a third describing itself as autocephalous. After the Russian military intervened in Ukraine in 2014, resentment towards the Moscow Patriarchate grew. This April the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko asked the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly to Ukraine.

The Ecumenical Patriarch’s decision to send envoys is the culmination of years of conflict with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 2016, Moscow found reasons to reject Constantinople’s invitation to a historic Pan-Orthodox Council. Russian hackers indicted by the US special prosecutor last month have spent years trying to steal Bartholomew’s private correspondence, with a particular interest in Ukraine.

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