Kiev’s cave monasteries become a focal point in the fight against Russia

The crosses on the refectory church at Kiev’s holy site of Pechersk Lavra have turned from gold to black.

At least that’s what Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, said after its priests and monks – viewed by Kiev as Moscow’s henchmen – were ordered by the government to vacate the Pechersk Lavra in the Ukrainian capital by the end of the month.

“Orthodox people are very sad and in despair,” said Lyudmila, a visitor to the sprawling complex and a follower of Onufriy 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 Eastern Orthodox religion’s holiest sites. It has also become a new battleground in Ukraine’s struggle for 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.

A priest walks past golden domes arranged over pallets on the side of a building in the Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastic complex
Priests and monks – viewed by Kiev as Moscow’s henchmen – have been ordered by the government to evacuate the Lavra © Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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

In May last year, Onufriy declared independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. But the move failed to convince its smaller rival, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine led by Metropolitan Epiphanius, which broke from Russian control in 2018. He also failed to convince the Ukrainian government. 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 were even infiltrated by spies from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB.

Archbishop Yevstratiy, a spokesman for the pro-Kyivian OCU, said Ukraine’s security services had shown that their 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,” Yevstratiy said. “Moscow understands that as long as it holds this heart in its hands, Russian influence will return, that it will conquer Ukraine and reimpose sacred unity.”

Oleksiy Danilov, Chief of National Security of Ukraine
Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, said the monks and priests in the lavra were even infiltrated by spies from the Russian Federal Security Service © Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

“We have no connections whatsoever,” replied Metropolitan Kliment, a spokesman for the UOC church. “There is no subordination. We don’t coordinate [with Moscow].”

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

In December, a priest was arrested for leading a service allegedly containing pro-Russian chants, while other UOC leaders were sanctioned for their links to Moscow.

On March 10, the Ministry of Culture, which officially owns the Lavra site, said that the church of Onufriy had violated the terms of its lease and would not allow it to be renewed after it expired on March 29.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who previously distanced himself from the clashes between the Ukrainian churches, has advocated the evacuation of the Lavra as a “movement to strengthen our spiritual independence”. Zelenskyy, born to Jewish parents, is not religious.

© Sergey Chuzavkov/AFP/Getty Images

But the end of the lease sets the scene for a tense confrontation between Ukrainian law enforcement and the monks and priests of Onufriy, who have vowed to stay and fight the eviction in court.

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

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday the end of the lavra lease for UOC clergymen and monks “confirmed the validity of the special operation in Ukraine” – the Russian government’s wartime period.

Kiev has promised not to forcefully evict the UOC’s priests and monks.

“Ukraine is a democratic, tolerant European country,” said Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko. “No one raises the question of expelling monks. We are talking about the return of state property, both movable and immovable.”

UOC spokesman Kliment said Zelenskyy and his ministers are using the Lavra dispute to divert attention from the war’s corruption and high human toll.

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

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

But now the Ukrainian government has gotten into a “battle between the churches” which it cannot win because it has to explain to the many believers in the church and to Kiev’s allies why it has taken this step. It would also have to cover the cost of running the lavra.

“We pray,” said Lyudmila. “We don’t know what else we can do to prove that we are Ukrainians. We are not citizens of Russia.” Kiev’s cave monasteries become a focal point in the fight against Russia

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