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Ukrainian Orthodox appeal to Zelensky  

24 March 2023


Representatives of the the Holy Synod of the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) arrive at the Office of President Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, to discuss the projected eviction of 200 monks from the 57-acre Pecherska Lavra (Monastery of the Caves) in the capital

Representatives of the the Holy Synod of the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) arrive at the Office of President Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine...

THE Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) has appealed to President Zelensky to protect it against “unjust practices”, including its projected eviction from a large monastery (News, 17 March).

“Our Church, to which many millions of fellow-citizens belong, has always educated its flock to love their motherland, be worthy state citizens, and fulfil their civic duties with dignity,” the UOC’s governing Holy Synod said in a message to President Zelensky. “When the Russian Federation invaded, it was the first to condemn this military aggression strongly and call on its believers to defend their native land.

“We respectfully appeal to you, as the head of state and guarantor of compliance with Ukraine’s constitutional norms, to ensure the right to freedom of conscience and religion for our faithful, and to prevent the adoption of anti-constitutional laws against the Church.”

The Synod, headed by Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), issued the appeal as Ukrainian officials carried out inventories at Kyiv’s 57-acre Pecherska Lavra (Monastery of the Caves), in preparation for the eviction of its 200 monks by Wednesday of next week.

It said that the 11th-century site had been “literally raised from ruins” by UOC monks after reopening in the late 1980s, but went on to say that its clergy were now being targeted by “baseless accusations”, provoking “a great wave of indignation” among UOC members.

The monastery’s repossession was backed, however, by the Primate of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko). He said that there was “no question” of the site being closed to prayers, services, and monastic life, but insisted that it had been used to promote the “ideology of a Russian space”.

In a weekend message, he told residents of the Pechersk-Lavra district: “With the Ukrainian state and society, our Church has long sought to induce the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine to end its subordination to the Russian centre, which is completely controlled by the Kremlin and used as an instrument for hybrid aggression against Ukraine.”

He dismissed comparisons with Communist-era religious persecution, and hoped that a “final ban on Moscow’s influence on Ukrainian church life” would be confirmed by legislation currently passing through the Kyiv parliament.

“Neither Metropolitan Onufriy nor his Synod reacted in any way to numerous facts of collaboration by their hierarchs and clergy with the Russian occupiers, or to their annexation of religious structures located in the temporarily occupied territories,” Metropolitan Epiphany said. “Instead, in the spirit of Russian propaganda, they focused on accusations against Ukraine.”

The exchanges took place as fierce fighting continued along Ukraine’s eastern front line, and as the President of China, Xi Jinping, held talks in Moscow with President Putin, three days after he was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

A UOC information director, Metropolitan Klyment (Vecherya), told journalists that its ten synod members had waited on the street for two hours on Monday with Metropolitan Onufriy in a bid to deliver the appeal directly to President Zelensky, but they had not been allowed to meet the President. He added that they regretted that the President had thus missed “an opportunity to explain his position”.

The President’s press secretary, Serhiy Nikiforov, however, denied that a meeting had been scheduled with the synod. Ukrainian media reported that three of the waiting synod members were under Ukrainian state sanctions, and accused them of “making a show” of the event by posting it live on social media.

Pope Francis has urged “warring parties” in Ukraine to “respect religious sites”.

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Revd Professor Jerry Pillay, said that he also believed that actions currently taken against the UOC raised “genuine questions with regard to respect for freedom of religion”. He went on to say that the WCC hoped to arrange a roundtable with Russian and Ukrainian church leaders in an effort to “bring light, hope, and healing to the tragic context”.

A press secretary for President Putin, Dmitry Peskov was shown on Russian TV with an Orthodox clergyman, while apparently visiting the captured Ukrainian port of Mariupol, at the weekend. Mr Peskov told journalists that the Kyiv government’s attempt to repossess the Pechersk-Lavra confirmed “the correctness of conducting a special operation in Ukraine”.

The chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department for Society and Media, Vladimir Legoyda, accused President Zelensky of “once again demonstrating disrespect and contempt for millions of Ukrainian believers”.

A report published this week by the University of Kyiv estimated that Russia already owed $1.5 billion for damage to 2100 cultural and religious sites in Ukraine. The country’s Culture Ministry said that it would seek the return of “tens of thousands” of document collections and cultural objects, including religious icons, seized by Russian forces since February last year.

The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, visited Lithuania this week to arrange pastoral care for some of 40,000 Ukrainian refugees who are unwilling to attend services with the country’s Moscow-affiliated Orthodox Church, which has joined others abroad in demanding autonomy from the Moscow Patriarchate.

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