Ukraine expels pro-Russian clergy from Kyiv cave monastery complex

Ukraine expels pro-Russian clergy from Kyiv cave monastery complex
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 29 March 2023 05:21

The move comes amid a major schism between Ukraine’s Orthodox churches.


KYIV — Near the entrance to the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, an 11th-century Orthodox cave monastery complex in the heart of the city, police stop every car for a brief check.

Wednesday is the deadline for the monastery’s 1,000 inhabitants to leave what was their home amid heightened political concerns that some of them were too close to Moscow, and were Russian fifth columnists. The police inspected the departing vehicles to ensure that none was loaded with the more than 800 icons, crosses and other priceless artifacts stored within the religious complex.

Three women — all inhabitants of the Lavra — sat on a bench not far from the lower caves of the monastery, watching monks load bags into a car.

One asked her comrades: “Where are we going to sleep, do you happen to know?”

“It’s as if they are taking our home,” another of the women told POLITICO, refusing to say her name. “God will punish you, and others like you for playing with his will,” she said angrily.

The high-profile eviction is just the latest installment in the bitter schism dividing Orthodox believers in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s church splintered in 2018 into two factions with almost the same name. In the teeth of opposition from the Kremlin, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was granted ecclesiastical independence by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2019. In a sign of the political fault lines underpinning the feud, OCU churches had offered support to the Maidan protesters of 2014, who toppled Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow’s satrap in Ukraine. This left the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which was still loyal to Moscow.

The expulsions from the Lavra technically come as part of the termination of a 10-year-old agreement on the free use of religious buildings and other state-owned property that the monastery signed in 2013. This was brought to an end after a special government commission found out about numerous violations of the rent terms by the holy tenants.

In reality, the matter is highly political, because of anger in Ukraine that some clergy from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church collaborated with Russian invaders.

“Nobody is planning to leave. We are taking some things out just in case there will be some forceful eviction or capture. Just to make sure that at least shrines and other things are not damaged,” Archbishop Iona, the head of the youth department at the church, told POLITICO. “Now the caves are full of people, praying. Some want to spend the night here. There was no open call for the defense of the Lavra. But if there is, all of Ukraine will come.”

Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko ordered the monks of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to leave all premises of the Lavra, but said that Ukrainian authorities would not use force against the monks if they miss the deadline. He also said if the monks want to stay, they just need to transfer their allegiance to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

As of March 26, more than 1,236 religious communities and monasteries have announced the transition from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Only some 4 percent of the Orthodox faithful now identify with the Moscow Patriarchate, according to a study by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology think-tank.

Most of the clerics from Lavra Moscow Patriarchate Church still do not recognize the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, even though Constantinople’s Patriarch Bartholomew granted it independence in 2019.

Oleksandr Tkachenko ordered the monks of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to leave all premises of the Lavra | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Metropolitan Onufriy of the Russian-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church claims his church is the only genuine one in Ukraine, slamming others as schismatic. As soon as the Russian full-scale invasion began, he publicly condemned it. In May last year, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church announced it had parted ways with the Russian Patriarchate and stopped praying for Russian Patriarch Kirill, Archbishop Iona said. “It was Cain’s murder of his brother Abel,” Iona said, mirroring the Russian narrative about Ukraine and Russia being “brotherly nations.”

However, in November 2022 a video from a prayer in Lavra appeared, where parishioners were praying for Russia. The priests later claimed it was fake.

Last year, the Security Service of Ukraine, also known as the SBU, conducted searches in various buildings of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, including the Lavra. As of February, the SBU is investigating some 60 criminal proceedings against pro-Russian clerics from the Moscow Patriarchate, many of whom are suspected of collaboration with the Russian occupying army in various regions.

“Only a few priests have indeed collaborated. It is not right to apply collective guilt to a church. There were also collaborators among SBU and other organs. But the government chose to attack the church,” Archbishop Iona said, adding that collaborators could be found in every sphere, even including within the ranks of the SBU.

Just days before the deadline for the monks to leave, the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, hardened his stance towards the Moscow Patriarchate, saying during a trip to Vilnius that Russia’s Orthodox Church shared responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine.

“The church and the state leadership in Russia cooperated in the crime of aggression and shared the responsibility for the resulting crimes, like the shocking abduction of the Ukrainian children,” Bartholomew, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, said on March 22 during a conference the Lithuanian capital.

In what was taken as a clear criticism of Russian Patriarch Kirill, Bartholomew said the Kremlin has been using the Moscow church as an “instrument for their strategic objectives.”

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