Kyiv’s cave monasteries become flashpoint in struggle against Russia

The crosses on top of the Refectory Church in Kyiv’s Pechersk Lavra holy site have turned from gold to black.

Or so said Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, after its priests and monks — deemed by Kyiv to be stooges of Moscow — were ordered by the government to vacate the cave monastery site in Ukraine’s capital by the end of the month.

“Orthodox people are very sad and desperate,” said Lyudmila, a visitor to the sprawling complex and a follower of Onufriy’s church. “They are trying to kill our faith.”

With its churches, monasteries and catacombs housing the relics of saints, the 1,000-year-old Lavra is one of the most sacred places in the Eastern Orthodox religion. It has also become a new battleground in Ukraine’s struggle to shake off Russian influence and control.

The UOC, the largest religious community in Ukraine, was until recently subordinate to the patriarchate in Moscow and a bastion of Russian influence.

Priests and monks — deemed by Kyiv to be stooges of Moscow — have been ordered by the government to vacate the cave monastery site © Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

But it has been in turmoil since Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, triggering a backlash among parishioners and some of its priests against Russian ecclesiastical control and the church’s Moscow patriarch Kirill, a staunch supporter of the war.

In May last year, Onufriy declared independence from the Moscow patriarchy. But the move failed to convince its smaller rival, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led by Metropolitan Epiphanius, which broke away from Russian control in 2018. Nor has it convinced the Ukrainian government. They both say the UOC is still under Russian ecclesiastical and political control.

Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, said the monks and priests in the Lavra had even been infiltrated by spies from Russia’s federal security service or FSB.

Archbishop Yevstratiy, a spokesman for the pro-Kyiv OCU, said Ukraine’s security services had demonstrated that its larger rival was still subordinate to the Moscow patriarchate which was “not a real religious institution, but part of the Kremlin”.

“The Lavra is like the sacred heart of Ukraine,” said Yevstratiy. “Moscow understands that, as long as it holds this heart in its hand, Russian influence will return, that it will conquer Ukraine and reimpose sacred unity.”

Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief
Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, said the monks and priests in the Lavra had even been infiltrated by spies from Russia’s federal security service © Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

“We don’t have any connections,” retorted Metropolitan Kliment, a spokesman for the UOC church. “There is no subordination. We are not coordinating [with Moscow].”

Ukrainian authorities have for months been tightening the screws on Onufriy’s church. In November, counter-intelligence agents raided the Lavra and multiple other sites as part of an investigation into pro-Russian influence operations.

In December a priest was arrested for leading a service with an allegedly pro-Russian chant while other leading figures in the UOC were sanctioned over their ties to Moscow.

On March 10, the culture ministry, which officially owns the Lavra site, said Onufriy’s church had violated the terms of its lease and would not have it renewed after it expires on March 29.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had previously distanced himself from the tussle between Ukraine’s churches, has endorsed the clear-out of the Lavra as a “movement to strengthen our spiritual independence”. Zelenskyy, born to Jewish parents, is not religious.

© Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP/Getty Images

But the end of the lease sets the scene for a tense stand-off between Ukrainian law enforcement and Onufriy’s monks and priests, who have vowed to stay and fight the eviction in the courts.

“It’s not a good look,” said a European diplomat, who feared the dispute could hand a propaganda victory to Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday the end of the Lavra lease for UOC clergy and monks “confirms the correctness of the special operation in Ukraine” — the Russian government’s term for the war.

Kyiv has promised not to evict the UOC priests and monks by force.

“Ukraine is a democratic, tolerant European country,” said culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko. “No one is raising the question of evicting monks. We are talking about the return of property owned by the state, both moveable and immovable.”

UOC spokesman Kliment said Zelenskyy and his ministers were using the Lavra dispute to distract attention from corruption and the heavy human toll of the war.

“Now there are large numbers of people we bury every day. Instead of this drama, they offer us a soap opera that runs until March 29.”

“Of course there are those who did support Russia and the Russian military but not the whole church,” Sergei Chapnin, senior fellow in Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University in the US. Chapnin said the Lavra dispute could have been defused had Onufriy removed some of the senior clerics who had flaunted their pro-Moscow sympathies and connections.

But now the Ukrainian government had waded into a “battle between churches” that it could not win because it would have to explain to the church’s many faithful and to Kyiv’s allies why it had made this move. It would also have to pick up the cost of running the Lavra.

“We are praying,” said Lyudmila. “We don’t know what more we can do to prove that we are Ukrainians. We are not citizens of Russia.”

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