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Monastery repossession defended by President Zelensky

17 March 2023


Pecherska Lavra, the contested 11th-century monastery in Kyiv

Pecherska Lavra, the contested 11th-century monastery in Kyiv

THE President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has defended the removal of his country’s best-known monastery from its Moscow-linked Orthodox Church (UOC) before a projected ban on the UOC’s communities under a new law.

“Moves are under way to strengthen our spiritual independence — society sees this, and I see that Ukrainians approve of these steps, which are quite legitimate,” President Zelensky said in a national message on Sunday.

“We will continue these moves, and not allow a terrorist state any opportunity to manipulate our people’s spirituality or destroy our Ukrainian shrines.”

The message followed confirmation by Ukraine’s Culture Ministry that it had terminated the UOC’s lease on Pecherska Lavra, or Mon­astery of the Caves, an 11th-century monastery in Kyiv, and would resume full state control over the complex from 29 March.

There were protests against the evacuation order, however, from the leader of the UOC, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), who said that his Church had rebuilt the monastery from a “pile of ruins” after the end of Communist rule. He urged Orthodox Christians to pray for continued access to the site, which was one of many raided by Ukrainian security officials last autumn.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow said that the Pechersk Lavra had provided a “cradle of civilisation and national culture” for Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. He appealed to Pope Francis and other church leaders to intervene against a “months-long slanderous information campaign” against the monastery by “radical politicians, religious and public figures”.

In a weekend message, also addressed to the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, and heads of other international organisations, as well as to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Professor Jerry Pillay, Patriarch Kirill said: “The repressive goal — complete expulsion of monastics from the monastery — was not hidden by government officials and representatives of other religious organisations in Ukraine under the influence of secular authorities. . .

“When Ukraine’s state leadership declares its commitment to democratic norms, the European path of development, observance of human rights and freedoms, it is regrettable that these are trampled today in the most blatant way.”

No replies had been published to the Patriarch’s message this week.

The latest controversy erupted as more heavy losses were reported in attritional fighting around the eastern town of Bakhmut, and as the United States accused Russian jets on Tuesday of downing an American drone in the Black Sea.

In a survey published on Monday by Active Group, a Ukrainian research firm, more than 60 per cent of Ukrainians backed the prohibition of UOC communities loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate under the new government-backed law, with 80 per cent also supporting moves to prevent their use of church buildings.

In a weekend statement, however, the UOC said that Ukraine’s Culture Ministry had not offered a “legal basis” for terminating its lease on the Pechersk Lavra, suggesting that the decision to remove the monks and novices, estimated at about 200, reflected the “whim of officials”.

The monastery’s Father Superior, Metropolitan Pavlo (Dmitrievich), one of several UOC leaders sanctioned by Ukraine for collaborating with Russia’s February 2022 invasion, vowed in a website message on Monday that his followers would resist eviction.

The government move was nevertheless defended this week by Ukraine’s Culture Minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, who said that the UOC had “violated regulations” by erecting unauthorised buildings on the 23-hectare site, a UNESCO World Heritage monument.

He added that some monks might be allowed to remain at the Pechersk Lavra, which would remain open to worship, and warned Metropolitan Pavlo not to attempt to remove valuable objects, including the relics of saints, from the state-owned complex.

The leader of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), also defended the repossession order during a Sunday liturgy in the monastery’s Dormition Cathedral, and denied that it represented an “act of persecution and eviction”.

He told his congregation: “It is the spirit of embitterment, of service to the Russian sphere, which has to leave. . . The devil has long sowed division and hatred between Orthodox brethren — and even now, when the satanic affairs of the Russian empire of evil clearly show nothing in common with the dreams of Holy Russia, there are still those who stubbornly cling to this hatred, born from Moscow’s decisions.”

In a separate letter this week to Mr Guterres, and Helga Maria Schmid, the secretary-general of the 57-country Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused the Ukrainian government of attempting to destroy the UOC, and called on foreign leaders to demand an end to Kyiv’s “arbitrariness and repression against the canonical Orthodox Church”.

The Paris-based head of Orthodox Churches of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe, Metropolitan Jean (Renneteau) of Dubna, became the latest Orthodox leader to repudiate Kirill’s “major strategic, political and ecclesiastical mistakes” during the Ukraine war, noting in a weekend statement that it was inappropriate for Russia “to teach moral lessons to others”.

Addressing an international Moscow meeting on Tuesday, however, Kirill insisted that his Church was working with other “religions and cultures” to “build a just world based on mutual respect and love for one’s neighbour”.

He continued: “Faced with serious challenges facing modern society, such as militant secularism, moral relativism, a sense of national superiority, and outright Russophobia, the defenders of traditional values should feel support of like-minded people more than ever.

“This is necessary for jointly defending the truth, which consists in the right of a person to remain himself, preserving the faith and traditions of his ancestors.”

Russia’s year-long invasion has left up to 300,000 dead, millions homeless, and large parts of Ukraine destroyed.

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