Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the government in Kiev of flagrantly meddling in the life of Orthodoxy in Ukraine where a new national church has broken away from Moscow's orbit.
Speaking at a Russian Orthodox Church event attended by Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, Putin said that Russia reserved the right to defend people's rights to worship.
He said the institution of the new church was based on a 'struggle for power' and had provoked 'animosity and intolerance'.
In words that will be taken as further evidence of Russia's willingness to intervene in Ukraine, he said: 'We have always respected the independence of church life, particularly in a sovereign neighbouring state. Nevertheless, we reserve the right to respond and do everything possible to protect human rights, including freedom of religion.
'It is a blatant interference in church life and those who initiated it seem to have learned from the godless people of the last century, who expelled believers from churches and prosecuted the clergy,' he added.
A long campaign by Orthodox Christians in Ukraine for their own national church rather than one under Moscow's authority was given rocket fuel by Russia's annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of the eastern part of the country.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew granted the Ukrainian church its 'tomos' or official declaration of autocephaly last month, initiating a split between Orthodox churches loyal to Constantinople and those loyal to Moscow.
Ukraine's parishes are now faced with choosing the jurisdiction to which they wish to belong. More than 100 have already opted to move from Moscow's rule to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine.