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Catholics Cautiously Watch As Orthodox Christians Split

By Jonathan Luxmoore

A Russian Orthodox woman lights a candle and prays in an Orthodox parish in St. Petersburg May 29, 2017. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

WARSAW, Poland (CNS) — As plans to establish an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church encounter complaints from Russia, Catholic leaders hope ecumenical ties will not be affected.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who holds honorary primacy among the world’s 14 main Orthodox churches, plans to grant autocephaly, or independence, to Christians in Ukraine, many of whom have been linked to the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate.

Calls for a single independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church intensified after Russia’s 2014 forced annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine. In 2016, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko petitioned Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew to grant the necessary “tomos of autocephaly.”

Some observers have cautioned that Catholic-Orthodox relations could be set back by inter-Orthodox feuding.

“This has been a problem in links between the Catholic Church, which is united and organized, and the Orthodox world, which lacks a common position on many issues. If inter-Orthodox disputes now deepen, ecumenical ties may also suffer,” said Viktor Khroul, a Moscow University professor and former Catholic newspaper editor.

Khroul said Catholics in Ukraine already were having trouble organizing social and charitable projects, as rival Orthodox leaders refused to work together.

“The best stance for Catholics now, both individually and ecclesially, is to maintain their distance from each side, while praying these Orthodox conflicts will be healed in a spirit of unity, love and justice,” he said.

Marcin Przeciszewski, director of Poland’s Catholic Information Agency, KAI, said he still hoped Catholic-Orthodox contacts would not be affected permanently.

“While the Catholic Church and Vatican have been careful to avoid any involvement in inter-Orthodox disputes, ordinary Catholics naturally want Ukraine to be sovereign and know it won’t be, as long as part of its Orthodox church remains dependent on Moscow,” said Przeciszewski, an expert on Russian and Ukrainian affairs.

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