Ukraine's Lviv symbolically votes to ban formerly Moscow-affiliated church

FILE PHOTO: Head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Metropolitan Epifaniy and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew attend a ceremony marking the new Ukrainian Orthodox church's independence at St. George's Cathedral, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey January 5, 2019. Mykhailo Markiv/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

KYIV (Reuters) - The local council in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Thursday became the first to ban a branch of the Orthodox church that was until last month directly affiliated with Moscow.

According to Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi, the unanimous council vote to prohibit the activity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) - with longstanding ties to Moscow - was "political" and without legislative effect, as rules on religious organisations are made at the national level.

"This is a position that we have publicly voiced, and now state bodies must get to work on it," Sadovyi was quoted as saying by the city administration's site.

The UOC, which until May reported to Moscow's Patriarch Kirill, was the official representative of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine until 2019, when the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine was officially recognised by church leaders in Istanbul.

A separate Ukrainian church, seen as an essential part of the newly independent Ukrainian state, was first proclaimed months after Ukraine secured independence from Soviet rule in 1991. It fought for years for recognition from the ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul before finally getting its wish in 2019.

Most lay worshippers have made the switch to the new church but a majority of parishes did not, causing tensions that reached fever pitch after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

In late May, the governing synod of the Russian-affiliated church voted to cut the church's ties with Moscow in response to Patriarch Kirill's blatant support for the war, described by the Kremlin as a "special military operation".

Most worshippers in Lviv, like much of Ukraine's west, are eastern-rite Catholics - linked to Rome but attending services similar to those in Orthodox churches.

According to the city council, only four churches in Lviv belong to the church previously affiliated with Moscow.

An assistant to the church's Metropolitan of Lviv told Reuters the church does not believe the ban applies to it as it is no longer loyal to Moscow.

However, Yuriy Lomaha, the councilman who introduced the motion, said he viewed the public disavowal of Moscow as "fake".

"They are taking this path so that there is less attention on them," Lomaha told Reuters, reflecting a wider mistrust within Ukrainian society of the church and its longstanding links to Moscow.

An April poll showed that 51% of surveyed Ukrainians wanted their government to ban the UOC, with support considerably higher in the country's west.

(Reporting by Max Hunder; Editing by Ron Popeski and Richard Chang)

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