It was just six months ago that Kirill was annointed as the 16th Patriarch of Moscow, becoming the leader of the Russian Orthodox church, the most important Orthodox branch in the world. As the church’s former head of foreign affairs, he is highly-experienced in diplomacy and church politics. And he will need to draw on such qualities in Ukraine, where the Orthodox church is split three ways.
There is the branch which remains faithful to Moscow, led by the Metropolitan Volodymyr. Secondly, there is a branch loyal to Kiev, and whose head is Patriarch Filaret. And, finally there is a small breakaway church which promotes complete independence from Moscow, led by Metropolitan Mefodiy. The divisions in the church surfaced after Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Many believers chose to remain faithful to the Patriarch of Moscow, but others preferred to assert their freedom within a church dedicated to Ukraine. The figures show the Moscow branch has the most parishes, but the Ukrainian church has more followers. The Patriarchy of Kiev counts some 4,000 parishes, less than half the number enjoyed by its Moscow rival. The two churches are daggers drawn, after Filaret was subjected to criticism from Moscow because of his independent stance. Indeed, the Ukrainian church makes no secret of its nationalistic links with Ukraine’s so-called ‘Orange Revolution.’ Speaking in 2004, Filaret said: “Following these events, the unfair elections, the people have risen up and I re-affirm that the church stands with them; it supports the people and will always do so.” Patriarch Kirill will repeat his call for religious unity, but the deep political divisions between Moscow and Kiev are reflected in the frosty relations between their two churches.