INTERCHURCH tensions came to a head in Ukraine this week, as the government took steps to evict Moscow-linked clergy from a Kyiv monastery, despite the inevitable condemnation from Russia, and also international concern.
Ukrainian media said that police and security officials had begun repossessing the 57-acre Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, after its Father Superior, Metropolitan Pavlo (Dmitrievich), defied a government order to vacate the site by Wednesday, and vowed to press ahead with legal appeals.
The Holy Synod of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church, the OCU, confirmed on Tuesday that it had asked to take over the 11th-century complex “to preserve its monastic life and the continuity of services”. It repeated earlier calls for Pechersk Lavra clergy from the Moscow-aligned UOC to join its ranks.
The calls were dismissed, however, by Vladimir Legoyda, who chairs the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department for Society and Media. He branded the monastery’s state repossession an act of “open persecution”.
“The UOC did not give any reason for the authorities to persecute it — nor did it violate laws or conduct subversive political activities,” Mr Legoyda told the Moscow-based weekly Argumenty i Fakty on Tuesday.
“The Ukrainian authorities are seeking the complete destruction of this canonical Church and believe it must be deprived of its main shrines for this purpose. It seems power is on the side of political radicals and schismatics, who feel complete impunity.”
The UOC was notified in early March that its ten-year lease on the state-owned monastic complex was being terminated, after security-service raids on sites belonging to the Church, up to 30 of whose leaders, including Metropolitan Pavlo, have been sanctioned for collaborating with the Russian invasion.
Among the latest expressions of concern, however, the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John X, told the UOC leader, Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky), in a message on Monday, that he and others were watching his Church’s “persecution” with “great pain”.
Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia told the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, in a letter, that most UOC members had “shown loyalty” to Ukraine during the war, and that their foreign links “do not necessarily mean unconditional obedience to another Church”.
Ukrainian politicians and legislators have nevertheless accused the UOC of failing to sever ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, despite an independence declaration last May, and say that its leaders have failed to condemn Russia, by name or act, over clergy collaborating with the invasion, which has left up to 300,000 people dead and millions of Ukrainians homeless.
On Tuesday, the Ukrainian Culture Minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, told a TV interviewer that steps were under way to check more than 700 valuable objects at the Pechersk Lavra, which UOC clergy “perceive as their own”, after media reports that many were being removed.
In a last-ditch appeal this week, however, Metropolitan Onufriy told Orthodox pilgrims that he still hoped that UOC personnel would be allowed to remain, while another senior Metropolitan, Klyment (Vecherya), appealed to President Zelensky to allow Lavra’s Theological Academy and Seminary to stay open. He said that many teachers and students had “relatives and friends defending Ukraine on the front lines”.
The UOC said that it had sent a delegation to the UN Human Rights Council, and was consulting with other international organisations about the “threat of unlawful deprivation” of its right to use the Pechersk Lavra.
A statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warning against “discriminatory state actions against the UOC”, was nevertheless dismissed by a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko. “Ukraine is a democratic state in which freedom of religion is guaranteed,” Mr Nikolenko wrote in a social-media post.
“At the same time, freedom is not the same as the right to engage in activities undermining national security. . . We urge accusers to refrain from unbalanced political assessments and base their reports on facts.”
In a post on Facebook, the leader of the independent OCU, Metropolitan Epiphany (Dumenko), accused the UOC and Russia of seeking control of “Ukrainian sanctuaries” and “disposing of the people’s heritage. . . Just as bullets can fly, touch, wound, and kill on the battlefield, so too can lies, the devil’s most dangerous weapon.
“That Kremlin’s latest Herod is generating new images of rage, cruelty, mercilessness, insidiousness and hypocrisy. . . It’s time to break free from spiritual occupation and the shackles of lies, from a Russian Church long insidiously subdued by a civil religion alien to the Gospel spirit and Orthodox faith.”
The exchanges took place as fierce fighting continued along Ukraine’s eastern front line. They were accompanied by fresh Russian missile- and drone-strikes, a week after the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued arrest warrants for President Putin, and his Children’s Rights Commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for “unlawfully deporting and transferring” Ukrainian children and deliberately targeting civilians.
On Wednesday, the Kyiv government said that it had documented the illegal deportation of more than 19,500 children to Russia, with a further 4390 deprived of parental care in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine — although actual numbers are believed to be much higher.
President Zelensky wrote in a Facebook post that 500 churches and religious buildings had now been destroyed in his country by Russian forces. He added that “missiles and artillery from the terrorist state” had not broken Ukraine’s “humanity and faith”.
In its statement on Tuesday, the OCU Synod said that it had appointed clergy to take over another monastery, the Pochayiv Lavra, at Ternopil, in western Ukraine. Russia’s Moscow Patriarchate said that OCU “radicals” had also seized the UOC’s Cathedral of the Nativity in Ivano-Frankivsk, on Tuesday afternoon, allegedly pushing its Bishop “out of the gates, along with the clergy and parishioners”.
Ukraine’s Religious Information Service, however, said that Russian occupation troops had also seized an OCU church at Stroganiva, near Melitopol, and handed it over to priests from the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill held talks this week with his country’s Deputy Defence Minister, and sent a congratulatory message to the Russian National Guard.
In a rare sign of national disagreement, the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations urged parliamentarians on Monday not to support a Bill allowing same-sex registered partnerships. They warned that it would threaten “the moral and spiritual basis of Ukrainian society”, and “worsen the demographic situation”.
“Valuable foundations are being laid in Ukraine both for victory in this war and further restoration and development,” said the Council, which includes Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders, as well as Jews and Muslims.
“These foundations should continue to include a healthy family, which necessitates forming and implementing a state policy focused on strengthening marital relations and responsible parenthood.”
The OCU Synod also condemned the proposed measure on Tuesday, warning that it violated constitutional norms and “the natural law established by God”, besides threatening “public morality” and “the moral and psychological health of children”.