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Moscow – The Russian Orthodox Church warned Friday that it would sever ties with the leader of the worldwide Orthodox community if he grants autonomy to Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.

The stern warning follows Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I’s promise to allow the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to be autocephalous, or ecclesiastically independent. The Russian church, the world’s largest Orthodox communion, fiercely opposes the decision by Bartholomew, who is considered the “first among equals” of Orthodox leaders.

Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Vladimir Legoyda warned Friday it will “break the Eucharistic communion” with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate if it makes the Ukrainian church autocephalous.

The church in Ukraine has been tied to the Moscow Patriarchate for hundreds of years, although many parishes have split off over the past two decades to form a schismatic church. Calls for independence have increased since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

Legoyda said that the plans for autocephaly “threaten a fragile religious peace in Ukraine,” and charged that they have been driven by “political ambitions of the Ukrainian leaders.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is running for re-election next March, has pushed Bartholomew to grant independence to the Ukrainian church.

His efforts received a fillip earlier this month when the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced that it was sending two bishops to Ukraine as a step toward declaring ecclesiastical independence for the church there.

The Russian Church responded by declaring that it would not participate in events headed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and would not even remember Bartholomew in its prayers.

Father Nikolai Balashov, a deputy head of the church’s foreign relations department, pointed at Friday’s seizure of a church in the Ivano-Frankivsk region western Ukraine by supporters of the Ukrainian church’s autonomy as a sign of what might happen if Bartholomew grants it ecclesiastical independence.

“It’s a sad harbinger of possible tragic developments in Ukraine if the government organs continue meddling in the church affairs in Ukraine,” he said. “If politics continue to intervene in the religious life it could lead to tragic consequences across Ukraine.”

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