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The biggest rift in Christianity in centuries is expected to open up after a new Orthodox church in Ukraine gained formal independence from Moscow in a move set to heighten geopolitical tensions in the region.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Metropolitan Epifaniy, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew attend a ceremony marking the new Ukrainian Orthodox church's independence, at St. George's Cathedral, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 5, 2019.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, left, talks to Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in Istanbul on Saturday.

The Constantinople Patriarchate, based in modern-day Istanbul and considered the first among equals in the Orthodox world, first agreed to recognise the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in October.

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The Moscow branch of the Ukrainian Church has denied accusations that it acts as a tool of the Kremlin, and says it has tried to bring about peace in eastern Ukraine.

Infuriated, the Russian church broke ties with the patriarchy in Istanbul, the center of the Orthodox belief for some 300 million Christians worldwide. He claimed they could now enjoy "the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention", as cited by AP.

The unification council on the creation of a single local Orthodox church in Ukraine was held at Sofiyska Square in Kyiv on December 15. It "is just a paper, the result of restless political and personal ambitions".

It had been "signed in violation of the canons and therefore not possessing any canonical force", Legoida said in a statement.

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In his New Year address, Vartholomaios described the decision to grant independence to the Ukrainian church as the most important event in 2018 for Orthodoxy.

Earlier this year, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople overruled its decision dating back to 1686 to transfer its jurisdiction over Kievan Orthodox churches (known as the Kievan Metropolis) to Moscow.

What Kiev is doing is "very risky because if, let's just say, a number of autocephalous churches do not accept the Ukrainian new church, then we will have a schism, a break", Fr Mark Tyson, an American Orthodox priest and rector of a West Virginia-based church, explained to RT.

He has been a long time critic of Moscow's religious influence in Ukraine. In 2014 - more than two decades after Ukraine broke away from the former Soviet Union - Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and supports separatist rebels in the east of the country.

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