Thousands march in support of Ukraine's Russia-backed church

·2-min read
More than 20,000 marched through Kiev in a demonstration of force by the branch of the Orthodox church loyal to Russia

Ukraine's Russia-backed Orthodox Church gathered thousands of its followers on Tuesday in a show of force ahead of a historic visit by its rival and leader of the Orthodox world, Patriarch Bartholomew I.

More than 55,000 believers marched through Kiev despite coronavirus restrictions to mark the 1033th anniversary of the Christianisation of Rus, a term referring to eastern Slavic lands in the Middle Ages.

The march -- held amid tight security -- ended peacefully with no violations, the police said in a statement.

Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I recognised an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church in 2018, after Kiev sought to break religious ties with Russia following a conflict in the country's east. The move was condemned by Moscow.

The leading authority in Orthodox Christianity is due in Ukraine next month to mark the country's 30th anniversary of independence.

Analysts said the mass gathering was meant to be a demonstration of force by the Moscow-loyal branch of the church, which was severely weakened by the creation of the new church.

Kiev-based analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told AFP that the Moscow-backed church wanted to show "that they are the most powerful church in Ukraine".

He said the church is "struggling for survival" and wanted to send "a signal to Moscow: don't forget us."

Moscow controlled part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for more than 300 years, but Bartholomew I's decision created an independent unified Ukrainian church.

Ukraine's Russia-aligned church -- which still has a large number of parishes in the country -- severed its ties with Constantinople, saying it would not take part in establishing a new church.

This move marked a new episode in the political, cultural and social divorce between Kiev and Moscow since Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014.

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