Ukrainian Orthodox churches have the right “to govern their religion according to their beliefs, free of outside interference,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday.

“We support Ukrainians’ ability to worship as they choose and hope this will be respected by all,” the top U.S. diplomat said.

Pompeo’s remarks affirmed the independence of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians in a controversy involving the Orthodox patriarchs in Moscow and Istanbul, who have fallen out over the status of Ukrainian churches. His interest in the clerical dispute stems from one of the more atypical aspects of the Ukraine crisis, as the theological fracture reflects the violent political schism that Russia has been orchestrating in Crimea and war-torn eastern Ukraine.

“Tolerance, restraint, and understanding are key to ensuring that people with different religious affiliations can live and prosper together in peace,” Pompeo said. We urge Church and government officials to actively promote these values in connection with the move towards the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”

The Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, following the annexation of Crimea, has spurred a contest between some of the most senior leaders of the Eastern Orthodox world. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople – the church uses the name that predates the final Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire – announced that he would recognize the independence of two church bodies in Ukraine that were previously anathematized, even though the Russian Orthodox Church has claimed jurisdiction over the country since the 17th century.

“We have made a decision that at the time, the anathema was introduced for an insufficient number of reasons, due to some political motivations,” the patriarch’s spokesman said last week.

The decision to acknowledge the validity of two church bodies has wide-ranging ramifications for earthly and spiritual realms.

“It’s no exaggeration to write that the granting of autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church to Ukraine’s millions of Orthodox believers is as significant as the disintegration of the USSR for Ukraine,” Taras Kuzio, an expert in Russian-Ukrainian controversies, explained in a September post for the Atlantic Council. “Autocephaly will reinforce growth in Ukrainian patriotism, support national integration, and spur a final divorce from Russia.”

Russian officials, both in the government and the Moscow church, reacted furiously. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the U.S. of backing an effort to unravel the unity of the Orthodox church.

“The idea behind this is obvious – another step in tearing Ukraine from Russia, not just politically, but also spiritually,” Lavrov said. “[I]ntervention in the life of the church is legally prohibited in Ukraine, in Russia, and I hope, in any other adequate country.”

The Eastern Orthodox world does not have a papacy, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, but the Constantinople patriarch is regarded as “first among equals.” But the Moscow church’s leader argued that Bartholomew overstepped his bounds and cut ties.

"No split of this kind ever occurred within the Orthodox church," Georgetown University’s Irina de Quenoy, author of The Orthodox Church in Russian Politics, told TASS. “It is unprecedented that believers are prohibited from receiving communion in churches of Constantinople. This never happened before and is a very tough move."