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Tensions on the rise at revered Kyiv monastery complex

Published:Monday | March 27, 2023 | 12:12 AM
The Monastery of the Caves, also known as Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, one of the holiest sites of Eastern Orthodox Christians, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
The Monastery of the Caves, also known as Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, one of the holiest sites of Eastern Orthodox Christians, in Kyiv, Ukraine.


The courtyards of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra have been busy with more than just the usual worshippers, going to and from its churches in the sprawling monastic complex that is Ukraine’s most revered Orthodox site.

Also busy were people in civilian clothes, loading cars with plasma televisions, furniture and other items from the buildings — helping the resident monks remove belongings of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), before a threatened government eviction on March 29.

There also were police officers checking the cars to make sure no one was removing items that belong to the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra preserve, which oversees the complex.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is reverberating here in a struggle for control of the Lavra, known in English as the Monastery of the Caves. The complex contains church, monastic and museum buildings; its oldest parts date back to the dawn of Christianity here a millennium ago.

The dispute is part of a wider religious conflict playing out in parallel with the war.

The government of Ukraine has already been cracking down on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine.

The parliament is considering a “draft law on making it impossible to operate in Ukraine religious organisations affiliated with centres of influence in the Russian Federation”, which could impact the UOC, depending on how it’s interpreted.

The UOC has insisted that it’s loyal to Ukraine, has denounced the Russian invasion from the start and has even declared its independence from Moscow.


But Ukrainian security agencies have claimed that some in the Ukrainian church have maintained close ties with Moscow. They’ve raided numerous holy sites of the church and later posted photos of rubles, Russian passports and leaflets with messages from the Moscow patriarch as proof that some church officials have been loyal to Russia.

The raids started after a Nov. 12 service at the Pechersk Lavra complex, where a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was filmed talking about the “awakening” of Russia.

The Ukrainian government has said the Lavra, including a UOC seminary and offices, is a hub of “Russian world” propaganda, an ideology touting Moscow’s political and spiritual hegemony over neighboring Slavic lands such as Ukraine.

The government also has sanctioned the Lavra’s abbot for alleged pro-Moscow activities. It already allowed the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine, to use one of the Lavra’s churches for a Christmas service.

But now it’s ordering the Ukrainian Orthodox Church out of the premises entirely.

The stakes are high. The complex has been called the “pearl of Ukraine” and the “Vatican” of Ukrainian Orthodoxy.

The site is owned by the government, and the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that as of March 29, it was terminating the lease allowing the free use of religious buildings on the property. The government claims that the monks violated their lease by making alterations to the historic site and other technical infractions.

“There are many new buildings there, and this is a UNESCO site, which do not have relevant documents and permits. The legality of such new buildings also raises legitimate questions,” Ukraine’s minister of culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, said on Ukrainian television. “The state must manage what belongs to it.”

The monks of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church dispute this, saying these claims are a pretext, and they refuse to leave.

Still, they’re moving out what possessions they can in preparation for a possible forcible eviction.