KYIV -- The war in Ukraine is scuttling the Russian Orthodox Church's 300-year dominance in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), a branch of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, on May 27 announced it was cutting ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, in a historic move against Russia's spiritual authorities.
"We disagree with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow... on the war," the church said in a statement after holding a council focused on Russia's "aggression" and declaring the "full independence and autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church".
'Thou shalt not kill'
The church has until now formally pledged allegiance to Russia's Patriarch Kirill, who has expressed clear support for President Vladimir Putin's February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
"The council condemns war as a violation of God's commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' and expresses condolences to all those who are suffering in the war," it said.
It said its relations with the Moscow leadership had been "complicated or absent" since Ukrainian authorities declared martial law.
The council appealed to both Ukraine and Russia to "continue the negotiation process" and find a way to "stop the bloodshed".
Church spokesman Archbishop Kliment told AFP the council had stressed its "complete rejection of Patriarchate Kirill's position regarding the war".
"Not only did he fail to condemn Russia's military aggression, but he also failed to find words for the suffering Ukrainian people," he said last month.
Ukraine has been under Moscow's spiritual leadership for hundreds of years, since at least the 1600s.
The move marks the second Orthodox schism in Ukraine in recent years.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) -- also known as the Kyiv Patriarchate -- broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2018 over the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
Putin's invasion and Kirill's support for it have placed the Moscow-backed church in Ukraine in an increasingly precarious position.
For his part, Patriarch Kirill said during Sunday mass in Moscow on May 29 that the council's decision was "unholy" and that "the spirits of earthly malice" had emerged in Ukraine.
'Nail in the coffin'
Before the war, the UOC-MP was the largest in Ukraine, with more than 12,000 parishes -- more than the rival OCU and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church combined.
Several of Orthodoxy's most important spiritual holy places belong to the UOC-MP, such as the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, Sviatohirsk monastery and Pochayiv monastery.
Its separation from Moscow will be the greatest loss in decades or even centuries for the Russian Orthodox Church, say religious scholars.
"This council will be a nail in the coffin for the Russian Orthodox Church," said Andriy Pinchuk of Kyiv, archpriest of the UOC-MP.
"It will stop existing in the form it took under Kirill ... This is the burial for the Russian Orthodox Church in its Gundyayev incarnation," Pinchuk said, using Patriarch Kirill's surname.
"To fully grasp what a blow this is, all you need to do is look at the numbers," he said.
"According to my calculations, the Russian church is losing one-quarter of its episcopate, one-sixth of its eparchies, one-third of all its churches and monasteries, but most important, nearly half of its faithful," he said. "Those are enormous losses for Moscow."
Pinchuk in April started an open letter calling for Kirill to be deposed by a church tribunal over his support of the war.
"The process of 'de-Kirillisation' has already begun," he said. "It will also wipe out the leadership of the Russian church like a wave."
"Kirill will definitely be condemned [by Russian Orthodox worshippers and leaders]," Pinchuk added. "The only question is whether he will be condemned in his lifetime or posthumously. It will definitely happen."
The status of the UOC-MP is now up in the air.
"The [UOC-MP] will definitely not be what it was before. But right now no one, not even the bishops, completely understands what it will be now and what status it will have," said Serhiy Shumilo of Kyiv, a theology scholar.
"I think there will be dialogue with the [OCU] and Constantinople, but it will progress slowly," he said, referring to suggestions that the UOC-MP could join the autocephalous OCU.
"On the one hand, the church is independent, but canonically it isn't recognised by anyone, because it needs to be an autonomous church, or in church parlance, an autocephalous church," said Oleksandr Sagan of Kyiv, a religious studies scholar.
"They don't have the status of autonomy -- it's not legally formalised. So right now they have a hybrid status," he said.
"A significant number of eparchies will decide on their own whom they want to be with," he said. "In wartime conditions, the eparchies themselves can determine whether they accept the new charter."
In the past three and a half years, about 1,000 parishes have switched from the Moscow Patriarchate to the OCU. About 300 of them have broken away since February 24 alone.
Sometimes the break-ups are less than friendly.
For example, in early March, the city council of Drohobych, a small city in western Ukraine, banned the activities of the UOC-MP in its community.
One of the churches that belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate attempted to conceal its ties with Moscow, according to Drohobych's deputy mayor Andriy Kovch.
The priest of the church was invited to a special commission that was supposed to determine whether the church belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate.
"He swore he wasn't connected to the Moscow Patriarchate," Kovch said. "But we still determined that there were ties."
"That same day, as people shouted 'Shame!', the priest left the central square and we sealed off the church," he said.
A few days later, on May 27, about 400 parishioners gathered to conduct a communal prayer at the church.
"When we sealed off the church, people didn't go inside, but now they did. And what they saw was dreadful. The bells were dismantled, the iconostasis was torn down and all the icons were removed."
"There was nothing but bare walls," Kovch said.