“Moscow” Church forced to leave Kiev Pechersk Lavra
SEven before the turn of the year, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture announced that it would “check” whether the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOK) may continue to use the cave monastery in Kiev. Now the decision has been made: by March 29, she must vacate the entire site, including the underground cells of the monks. The ministry justified this in a letter that became known on Friday evening with the “violation of the provisions of the agreement on the use of state property by the monastery”. The monastery has until Tuesday to send representatives to a commission that will regulate the handover.
With that, the UOK has to leave its spiritual center. With the golden domes visible from a great distance, this also has symbolic value for the church, which still has the largest number of parishes, priests and monasteries in the country. But it has been under considerable pressure since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
Accusation: sabotage for Russia
It is true that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church last May declared “full autonomy and independence” from the Moscow Patriarch Cyril, who supports Russia’s war of aggression and propagates the imperial idea of the “Russian world”. But the government in Kyiv doesn’t take the turn from her.
The letter from the Ministry of Culture to the monastery refers to a presidential decree Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who recently announced Ukraine’s “spiritual independence”. In the fall, the SBU raided hundreds of churches and monasteries, including the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. The accusation was: sabotage for Russia. In particular, outrage was provoked by a video showing believers singing about the “awakening” of “Mother Russia” in the cave monastery.
The UOK, on the other hand, sees itself as a victim of religious persecution. In a first reaction to the announced expulsion from the cave monastery, she wrote on Saturday: “The only reason for the expulsion of monks from the Orthodox sanctuary is the whim of officials from the Ministry of Culture, just like during the Soviet regime in the 1960s.” Unsurprisingly, this narrative also represents the Russian Orthodox Church, which still sees itself as the mother church of the UOC. Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida spoke of the “peak” of “lawlessness that has been unfolding against millions of faithful Ukrainians for years”. The spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry made a similar statement.
But the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not a monolithic bloc either. Groups that are critical of the leadership of the church led by Metropolitan Onufrij have recently raised their voices. By early February, more than 1,500 priests and lay people had signed an appeal in light of the Russian war against the Ukraine complained about a “lack of clear and consistent statements by the Holy Synod of the UOC”.
This reform-oriented current is also behind attempts at rapprochement with the competing Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OKU), the foundation of which was promoted by then-President Petro Poroshenko in 2018. On February 16, lay and clergy of both churches met in Kiev’s St. Sophia Cathedral. They called for “the union of all Orthodox Ukrainians in one conciliar and local (autocephalous) Ukrainian Orthodox Church, recognized by the whole Orthodox Christian community.” Because “deep alienation, distrust and the creation of an enemy image” led to mutual dehumanization among the followers of both churches, they felt obliged to “start this movement”.
But such a liberation will not happen that quickly. Serhij Bortnyk, a participant in the meeting from the ranks of the UOK, wrote on the online platform “Dialog hier” about the hope for small steps towards closer: “We are only a wheel that can set the whole mechanism in motion.” As an “unfriendly step towards their own citizens” the expulsion from the cave monastery was also referred to on “Dialog hier”.
It is not the first such step. At the beginning of March, the Ministry of Culture ordered the UOK to leave two monasteries and two cathedrals in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. Authorities are also making it possible for OKU to hold a Christmas service as early as January 7 in a cathedral on the grounds of the Cave Monastery.