MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Ukraine's parliament on Thursday adopted a bill spelling out procedures for transferring church property after a new unified Ukrainian Orthodox church was granted independence.
The bill could potentially affect some 12,000 churches in Ukraine and vast amounts of property, including the gems of Orthodox Christianity like the vast Pechersk Monastery in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople earlier this month granted independence to a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, formally severing its centuries-long ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. The move forces clergy and believers in Ukraine to choose between belonging to Moscow-backed churches or the new Ukrainian one.
Until the decree, the Orthodox church that enjoyed wide autonomy under the Russian Orthodox Church was considered legitimate and two others in Ukraine were regarded as schismatic. The new church unites the two formerly schismatic bodies.
Many Ukrainians had resented the status of the Moscow-affiliated church. The push for a full-fledged Ukrainian church was bolstered by Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed rebels that has killed at least 10,000 people.
The Supreme Rada on Thursday voted for the bill that spells out the procedures for transferring church property if a parish decides to join a new church. The bill has yet to be signed by the president.
The Russian Orthodox Church has staunchly opposed the creation of the new Ukrainian church, warning of sectarian violence.
The first reading of the bill, which allowed for a transfer of property by a majority vote and a show of hands, caused concerns in the European Union.
The bill that was voted on Thursday requires two-thirds of a parish to put their signatures on a vote to join another community. If the vote is not unanimous, that part of the community that prefers to stay with the Russia-affiliated church should be allowed to rent the premises and use them for their own rites.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who spearheaded efforts to make the Ukrainian church independent, hailed the vote at the Supreme Rada, saying that it will prevent "bloodshed." He said over 100 parishes have already indicated their intention to join the new church.
Poroshenko, who has been touring the country in recent weeks with the Tomos, a scroll containing the independence decree, has been criticized for using the church split with Moscow to boost his popularity. He is expected to seek re-election in the March 31 presidential vote.