MOSCOW — The Russian Orthodox Church is denouncing a decision by Orthodox Christianity's leading body to send two envoys to Ukraine as a step toward declaring ecclesiastical independence for the church there.

In a statement issued on Saturday, the world's largest Orthodox church by far also threatened to take unspecified "retaliatory actions."

The Russian church claims authority over the church in Ukraine. But many Ukrainian parishes reject the Moscow Patriarchate and have formed a separate church that is pushing for recognition as a self-governing, or autocephalous, institution.

The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate said Friday it is sending two bishops to Ukraine "within the framework of the preparations for the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine." The patriarchate's leader is considered the "first among equals" of Eastern Orthodox clerics.