But supporters of Bartholomew said that he hopes autonomy will heal festering divisions within Ukraine that Moscow has long failed to address. He could issue the ordinance — officially called a Tomos of Autocephaly — as soon as this week.
The backbeat to the entire process is the escalating contest between the Russian church and Constantinople over control of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Russia has revived a pre-revolutionary effort to dilute the authority of the ecumenical patriarch, according to church officials and other experts. Moscow believes that its large number of adherents gives it the right to lead, especially since the mother church is down to about 3,000 parishioners in Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Supporters of the patriarch say canonical law and tradition trump numbers.
Russian influence is often based on quiet payments made to impoverished branches of the faith, experts said, but the rivalry occasionally emerges in public. In 2016, Kirill withdrew from a landmark conference to promote unity — a meeting that took 55 years to organize. The disagreement was ostensibly over documents, but critics of the Russians saw it as an attempt to embarrass Bartholomew.
Last June, Sputnik, a Russian news outlet that answers to the Kremlin, introduced a Greek language service. Influencing opinion in Greece and on Mount Athos — where 20 monasteries form the spiritual heart of the faith — is considered a major aspect of Russia’s campaign to dominate the church given the central role that Greek hierarchs play throughout the Orthodox world.
Every article on Sputnik’s Orthodox affairs page in September either lauded the Russian church or attacked Bartholomew. “Kremlin: The Unity of the Orthodox Church is best for the whole Orthodox world” read one headline, while another said, “Local Churches Anxious over Patriarch Moves in Ukraine.”
The Ukraine decision could determine whether Russia prevails.
“The only thing that they are selling to the others is power, money and glamour,” said Andreas D. Loudaros, the editor of Orthodoxia.info, a website based in Athens that specializes in church affairs. “Russia is not saying to the others that I am the best because I took theology from Point A to Point B; Russia is not saying to the others that I will unify the Christians.
“Moscow is just saying I have the most believers so I have to rule.”