KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The head of Ukraine's Orthodox Church has died at 78 after leading it for more than two decades during the tumultuous post-Soviet period.
Metropolitan Volodymyr, who had been credited with stabilizing the church, died Saturday "after a long illness," the church announced online Saturday.
In his more than 20 years as head of the country's largest church, Volodymyr weathered the breakaway of two groups that declared themselves independent of the Moscow Patriarchate, which incorporates the Ukrainian church. Observers say he succeeded in preventing even more splits.
"He will go down in history as the savior of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy during a very difficult historical moment, as the preserver of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy," said Andrei Zolotov, a Russian journalist and expert on Orthodoxy.
Recently, Volodymyr often reflected pro-Russian opinions in Ukraine, where government troops are fighting a separatist insurgency in the east of the country.
Volodymyr was elected the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1992 to replace Metropolitan Filaret, who was excommunicated by Moscow and went on to form the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate. Another group of schismatics formed the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.
Volodymyr worked to contain splits between Moscow-leaning and independence-minded church leaders and congregants, while also obtaining broad autonomy for governance and some cultural and religious matters from Moscow.
"There exist contradictions (in the Ukrainian Church), which up until now Volodymyr was able to contain, to balance out," said Viktor Yelensky, head of the Ukrainian Association for Religious Freedom. "He prevented a further split."
Most experts believe that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will eventually be given recognition as fully independent. But were the Ukrainian church to abruptly and fully break away from Moscow, fierce battles over parishes and property would be likely.
Volodymyr adopted the more gradual approach of developing Ukraine's Orthodoxy under Moscow's guidance.
Born Viktor Sabodan to a family of farmers in western Ukraine in 1935, Volodymyr studied at seminaries in Odessa and Leningrad, was ordained at 26 and took monastic vows soon thereafter. Orthodox priests are allowed to marry, but that limits their career paths.
He served briefly in Russian Orthodox Church missions in Jerusalem and Geneva, then as a bishop in Russia and Ukraine, both of which were then a part of the Soviet Union. In 1973 he was appointed the rector of the Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary and promoted to the rank of Archbishop of the Moscow Diocese. He later became a senior administrator at the Moscow Patriarchate.
AP reporter Maria Danilova contributed to this report.