Bulgarian Church turns down Russia's call for debate on Ukraine

SOFIA (Reuters) - The Bulgarian Orthodox Church on Friday turned down a call by the Russian Patriarch to hold talks to discuss a bid by the Ukrainian church to break away from Moscow’s orbit.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Filaret is leading a drive to establish a national church independent of the Russian Orthodox Church in the face of strong opposition from Moscow.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill wrote to all branches of the Orthodox world, calling for talks to discuss the situation around church life in Ukraine.

The Bulgarian Church’s Holy Synod, its top executive body, however, said in a statement only that Kirill’s letter would be submitted for consideration by a special commission - effectively a stalling move.

The Ukrainian church split from its Russian parent following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, but Filaret has stepped up his drive for an independent national church since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the outbreak of a Kremlin-backed separatist insurgency in the eastern Donbass region.

The row in Orthodox Christianity has deepened with the Russian Church saying it will no longer take part in structures chaired by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Turkey, the global spiritual leadership of Orthodox Christians, whose backing the Ukrainians are seeking for their independence bid.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination worldwide with more than 250 million members. But unlike the Roman Catholic Church it has no supreme leader comparable to the Pope but instead is composed mainly of de facto national churches, each led by a patriarch.

Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Richard Balmforth