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Clergymen take part in a procession marking the 1030th anniversary of the Christianisation of the country, which was then known as Kievan Rus', in Kiev, Ukraine July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

(reuters_tickers)

By Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams

KIEV (Reuters) - President Petro Poroshenko joined thousands on the streets of Kiev on Saturday on an anniversary marking the start of the conversion of Ukrainians to Christianity, amid a push to remove what he says is a lever of Kremlin influence in Ukrainian affairs.

Poroshenko wants to establish a so-called national 'autocephalous' church in the majority-Orthodox country, which he says would be vital to tackling meddling by Moscow.

Religious divisions came to the fore in Ukraine after the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia and conflict between Ukrainian and Moscow-backed separatist forces in the east.

Two competing strands of the church, known as the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kiev Patriarchate, vie for influence in the eastern European country.

The Moscow Patriarchate considers its rival illegitimate, and opposes Poroshenko's proposal. The Kiev branch, which broke away in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, supports it.

Critics of the Moscow Patriarchate say it is under the thumb of the Russian Orthodox Church. They see it as a fifth column for the Kremlin, used to harbour separatist fighters, store weapons and justify Russian expansionism.

The Moscow Patriarchate rejects such accusations. It says it is autonomous from Russia.

NATIONAL SECURITY

During the day Poroshenko addressed priests, officials, lawmakers and members of the public on a hill by the statue of Volodymyr the Great, the prince whose baptism led to the christianisation of the region in 988.

"Autocephaly is an issue of our independence. This is an issue of our national security. This is an issue of the entire world geopolitics," Poroshenko said.

"Dear friends, the time of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has definitely come."

He then joined a procession of thousands of people waving Ukrainian flags, along with priests in golden robes and soldiers.

Poroshenko said it was "absolutely necessary to cut off all the tentacles used by the country-aggressor within our state body".

Winning formal approval from the global Orthodox community for such a church could boost Poroshenko's chances of re-election in a tight presidential race next year.

Representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, global spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, boosted Poroshenko's hopes of securing approval for an autocephalous church.

"The Ecumenical Patriarch cannot remain blind and deaf to the appeals that have been repeated for more than a quarter of a century," said Bartholomew's representative, Metropolitan Emmanuel, in an address alongside Poroshenko.

The church was working towards "achieving the ultimate goal - to provide autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church," he said.

(Editing by Andrew Bolton)

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Reuters