The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople claims to be the foremost leader and international representative of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The church is geographically divided into several largely independent local churches, each with its own leader (Patriarch, Archbishop, or Metropolitan).
Shortly after Ukraine gained its independence from the USSR, some of its presidents asked the Ecumenical Patriarchate to give Ukraine a church distinct from the Moscow Patriarchate.
Three Orthodox churches in Ukraine
At the end of the 20th century, three Orthodox jurisdictions existed in Ukraine:
- The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) (UOC-MP) which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church and thus under the Moscow Patriarchate. This church was, until 11 October 2018, the only Orthodox church in Ukraine recognized by other Orthodox churches.
- The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), led by Metropolitan Makariy, which was independent, having been founded in 1921 following the establishment of the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic and having survived the Soviet Union both outside and inside the country.
- The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), led by Patriarch Filaret of Kiev, an independent church which was founded in July 1992. In January 1992, after Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union following the latter's dissolution, Metropolitan of Kiev Filaret of the UOC-MP convened an assembly at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra that adopted a request for autocephaly to the Moscow Patriarch. The Patriarchate of Moscow did not comply and asked Filaret to resign. Filaret did not resign and was suspended on 27 May 1992 by the UOC-MP. The bishops loyal to Metropolitan Filaret and a similar group from the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church organized a unifying synod which was held on 25–26 June 1992. The delegates agreed to form a combined church named the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate under a patriarch they elected, Mstyslav of the UAOC. Mstyslav never approved the union between the UAOC and the UOC-KP. Filaret was defrocked on 11 July 1992 by the Russian Orthodox Church. After the death of Patriarch Mstyslav in 1993, the UOC-KP church was headed by Patriarch Volodymyr. In July 1995, upon the death of Volodymyr, Filaret was elected head of the UOC-KP by a vote of 160–5. Filaret was anathematized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1997.
The UAOC and the UOC-KP were not recognized by other Orthodox churches and were considered schismatic. ROC officials stated that the anathematization of Filaret was "recognized by all the Local Orthodox Churches including the Church of Constantinople". The synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate did indeed recognize, in a July 1992 letter to Patriarch Alexy II, the defrocking of Filaret by the ROC, and the Ecumenical Patriarch recognized the anathematization of Filaret in a letter of April 1997 to Patriarch Alexy II.
On 11 October 2018, the excommunications of the UAOC and the UOC-KP were lifted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, however the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized neither the UAOC nor the UOC-KP as legitimate and their leaders were not recognized as primates of their respective churches. As of 15 December 2018, the UAOC and the UOC-KP do not exist anymore and have merged with some members of the UOC-MP to form the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The UOC-MP still exists. The UOC-MP has 12,064 active parishes, the UOC-KP had 4,807, and the UAOC had 1,048.
Ecumenical Patriarchate and the ecclesiastical situation in Ukraine
In April 2014, the Ecumenical Patriarch talked about the ecclesiastical problems in Ukraine during his Palm Sunday sermon and said "[t]he Ecumenical Patriarchate recognizes the difficult challenges facing the blessed Ukrainian people today". In February 2015, the Primate of the Canadian Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Yuri (Kalishchuk), during a round table in the Ukrinform agency, declared that "[t]he Patriarchy [of Constantinople] is watching the situation in Ukraine and considers the ideal solution to get the unified Orthodoxy" and "will work on uniting Orthodoxy in Ukraine". He added that the "Constantinople Patriarchate is waiting for the request and guidance from the Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdictions here, but first of all it is waiting for astep from the President of Ukraine".
On 6 June 2015, the UAOC requested to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to receive "[the] Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church to the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a metropoliswith [sic] the rights of self-governance". On 24 June, "the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), held on 24 June in Kyiv [Kiev]" issued a statement about the presence "of two bishops of the Constantinople Patriarchate in Ukraine [Bishop Daniel of Pamphilon (ru) and Bishop Ilarion] and their meeting with Ukrainian clergy". "Bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) "expressed concern" about [Bishop Daniel of Pamphilon and Bishop Ilarion's] activities in the "canonical territory" of the UOC (MP) without consent of the hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)." On 27 June, the UOC-KP, after its Holy Synod the same day, decided to plan to ask the Ecumenical Patriarch to recognize its autocephalous status.
On 2 February 2016, the Patriarch of Moscow officially declared that "it is important that there is already a common understanding of the need for consensus among all the Churches, excluding any unilateral actions in granting autocephaly." The same day he warned that "the unilateral recognition of the schism [in Ukraine] will unavoidably have [catastrophic consequences] for the unity of the Orthodox Church[.]"; on this occasion, the Ecumenical Patriarch declared: "We all recognize that Metropolitan Onufry is the only canonical head of Orthodoxy in Ukraine."
In June 2016, the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council was held in Crete. However, a few days before it began, the Russian Orthodox Church refused to participate. Previously the Orthodox churches of Georgia, Bulgaria, and Antioch had also refused to participate. One of the issues cited was the method of proclaiming the autonomy of the Orthodox churches. On 16 June, Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, asked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople for autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and thus independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. On 11 June, before the adoption of the resolution by the Rada, the Moscow Patriarchate sharply criticized the appeal of the deputies. However, the council in Crete did not consider and did not officially comment on the Ukrainian question.
On 15 December 2017, Filaret in Kiev met with personal representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople: Bishop Daniel (UOC of USA) (ru) and Bishop Hilarion (UOC of Canada) and discussed with them issues "of mutual interest".