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Ukraine monastery embroiled in church-state standoff

Tensions between the Ukrainian government and the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church remain high, after the termination of a lease agreement saw government forces attempt to evict the Church from an historic monastery in Kyiv shortly before Easter, leading to tense scenes during the liturgical feast, celebrated last Sunday in most Ukrainian Churches.

Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Complex. Credit: Falin/wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

For decades, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) had held a lease from Ukraine’s government, giving it the use of large portions of the monastery complex at the National Kyiv-Cave Historical Cultural Preserve, part of a UNESCO world heritage site.

But in January, the government refused to renew the UOC-MP’s lease on the upper part of the monastery, which is known as the Lavra, or “Cave Monastery.” 

The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture instead offered a lease for the upper Lavra to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), the autocephalous Church recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople, but not Moscow. 

On March 29, the government moved to terminate the UOC-MP’s indefinite lease on the lower part of the  Lavra, and ordered UOC-MP monks to vacate the premises — which they refused to do, filing an appeal with the local courts. 

Matters escalated on April 1, when Ukrainian security services charged UOC-MP Abbot Pavlo Lebid with inciting religious hatred, and placed him under house arrest. 

April 16, the day on which both Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrated Easter this year, saw a heavy presence of Ukrainian security forces at the Lavra, who checked the identification of worshipers and conducted searches. 

While the UOC-MP remained in the lower level of the monastery, the OCU celebrated in the Lavra’s main level, the first time Easter had been celebrated by the Church in the monastery, and the first time the feast had been marked there with a liturgy in the Ukrainian language, rather than in Russian.

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The tense Easter celebrations were the latest chapter in an emerging conflict between government forces and the UOC-MP,  after Ukrainian security services began alleging last year that UOC-MP clergy have spread pro-Moscow propaganda in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began last year.

The Ministry of Culture’s termination of the UOC-MP’s lease agreements at the Lavra has been widely seen as another step in restricting the activities of the Russian-affiliated church, after several representatives of the UOC-MP took part in October events in Moscow at which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of some occupied Ukrainian territories. 

Immediately afterward, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine imposed sanctions on high-ranking ministers of the UOC-MP — some were charged with anti-Ukrainian activities and collaboration, and are now under investigation.

In November last year, government forces raided the Lavra and seized Russian passports, pro-Moscow literature, and $100,000 in cash. 

Raids at other UOC-MP monasteries have turned up what security services have called “books of xenophobic content with offensive fictions about other nationalities and religions.” 

“The pamphlets found deny Ukraine's right to independence and emphasize that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus ‘cannot be divided,” according to government briefings.


The notion that Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are intractably unified under Moscow's leadership is part of the Russkiy-mir worldview espoused by Putin and endorsed by Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill, who has primacy over the Russian Orthodox Church and the affiliated UOC-MP.

The Russkiy-mir worldview holds that the “Russian world” covers almost the whole of Eastern Europe, and that Moscow has a historic right and obligation to exercise influence over the region.

It has formed part of the philosophical basis of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and been a central part of Russian propaganda emphasizing a claimed cultural and historic unity of Russian and Ukrainian people.

At the beginning of December, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced a crackdown on the operation of Moscow-affiliated Orthodox churches in the country, promising bill in the legislature that would see Ukrainians face “personal, economic, and restrictive sanctions,” for continued religious activity overseen by Moscow. 

Complicating the issue is the position of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which has moved in to claim the premises previously occupied by the UOC-MP at the Lavra monastery. 

Since the beginning of 2023, the OCU has received permits to make use in the upper part of the monastery complex, most of which is occupied by a state museum. 

But the OCU has also called on the monks of the UOC-MP to move into a newly created Kyiv-Pechersk monastery of the OCU, and for them to elect a new abbot from among the members of their own community. To date, only one of them, Archimandrite Avraamiy Lotysh, has decided to take this step. 

In the meantime, state authorities have refrained from forcibly evicting the UOC-MP monks, and emphasized that the termination of their lease at the landmark site does not mean that the monastery will be liquidated.  

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Officially on the sidelines of the dispute is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but local leaders and lay faithful alike remain deeply invested in the standoff at one of the centers of the country’s Christian history and life. 

The Kyiv Cave Monastery has always been an important pilgrimage site not only for Orthodox Christians but also for Christians of every denomination in Ukraine. According to the head of the UGCC, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Ukrainian Greek Catholics, as citizens of Ukraine, are deeply invested in the future of the Lavra because it is “a common shrine of the Ukrainian people,” even if the Catholic community does not claim the right to hold services in its churches.

While Ukrainian Catholics report generally positive attitudes to restricting the activities of the UOC-MP in Ukraine, they also have reservations that as the UOC-MP is deprived of its privileged status, the OCU may take its place as a kind of de facto national Church, instead of a fair treatment of all Churches by the state.

According to Rev. Nazar Zatorsky, a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Eparchy of St. Volodymyr centered in Paris, who currently serves in UGCC parishes in Switzerland, today's tensions around the Lavra ultimately have roots in the unfair treatment of Christian denominations by the Ukrainian state authorities in the past.

“The UOC-MP presents the situation as if it is being expelled from its premises. In fact, the Kyiv Cave Monastery is owned by the state, and the UOC-MP had the monastery complex in its use only because the Ukrainian government had previously elevated it above other Ukrainian Churches in every way possible and granted it various advantages,” he told The Pillar.

According to Fr. Zatorsky, the situation changed after the appearance of the OCU on the religious map in 2018, and received official recognition of its status as an independent Orthodox Church from the Patriarch of Constantinople in 2019. 

Since then, according to Fr. Zatorsky, the state has shifted its institutional favor to the OCU over the UOC-MP, whose hierarchs have repeatedly demonstrated a pro-Russian position, in addition to ecclesiastical ties. 

“We are not talking about persecution here,” he told The Pillar, “but only the deprivation of preferences and the status of a semi-official state Church which [the UOC-MP] used to enjoy.”

“For the past 30 years, the UOC-MP has been a state-protected Church, which contributed to the spread of its network throughout Ukraine, and the hierarchs of the UOC-MP were quite satisfied with this situation.” 

“The real question now,” he said, “is whether the UOC-MP can exist in conditions of interdenominational competition, on a par with other denominations without state patronage.” 

“The aggressive protests of its hierarchs indicate that they themselves have serious doubts about this," said Zatorsky.

This assessment is shared by the Synkellos for Monastic Affairs of the Lviv Archeparchy of the UGCC, Fr. Justyn Boyko, MSU. 

According to Boyko, the UOC-MP has enjoyed special treatment from the state for many years. This included the transfer of the premises Lavra for the Church’s indefinite use when pro-Russian politician Mykola Azarov headed the Ukrainian government. 

At the same time, Fr. Boyko told The Pillar, the UOC-MP believed it could dispose of this property at its discretion. 

“They did whatever they wanted there. They violated everything that could be violated. Sooner or later, someone had to bring it all back to the legal system. It is quite good that we are talking about returning to the principle of equality of all churches before the state. From the state's point of view, I support these things,” said Boyko.

Boyko also says that, as far as he knows, the UOC-MP does not have nearly as many monks at the site as it has claimed. While the Church’s leadership have repeatedly stated that the monastery is home to about 200 monks, according to Fr. Boyko many are actually hired workers who have been given permission to wear monastic clothes during their stay in the monastery.

“It's almost impossible to distinguish who is a monk and who is not,” said Boyko. “This levels the whole idea of monasticism as such.” 

Though, he added, “with the monks who are there, monks in the true sense of the word, it will always be possible to find a way out of the situation. Because even though the Kyiv Cave Monastery will remain a museum, it is Ukraine's spiritual center, and prayer should continue there.” 

“But now, the time has come when it is vital to allow different denominations to pray at these holy places, including the Greek Catholic Church. It is also the Church of St. Volodymyr's baptism, and the Kyiv Cave Monastery is one of the centers of the spirituality of Kievan Rus,” he said. 

“We, as [Catholic] monks, also feel like heirs to this tradition of St. Anthony and Theodosius of the Caves, especially the Studite monks of the UGCC. Because the Studite charter was the charter of the Kyiv Cave Monastery.”

According to Fr. Boyko, the situation around the monastery is an inevitable result of an untenable position taken by the UOC-MP’s leadership 

“Why? Because when the Moscow Patriarchate supported Russia's war against Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate decided to sit back,” he explained. 

In May, the UOC-MP held a solemn governing meeting called a “sobor,” at which Church leaders eliminated all reference to Moscow in the Church’s governing statutes. But the move turned out to be mostly symbolic, as the UOC-MP’s laws which identified Moscow as the source of its communion with Orthodox Churches remained.

Boyko told The Pillar that “many priests and monks, and bishops, have cooperated with the occupiers. Society is not blind, and it sees this. And now society has taken this matter into its own hands.” 

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Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, dozens of Orthodox parishes in Ukraine have disaffiliated from hierarchy connected to Moscow, moving from the UOC-MP to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

“I hope that the healthy forces in this Church will come to their senses and finally respond to the call of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to unite Orthodoxy in Ukraine,” Boyko said. 

“The leadership of the UOC-MP want to be seen as martyrs and confessors of the faith. But I am convinced that this is not their style at all. They fled from the Lavra, leaving ordinary monks and priests there. They are not ready to endure persecution, let alone live in poverty,” Boyko said. “These are people who are used to living in great luxury. They are shocked that they are losing their estates, not that they are losing a place of worship.”

For his part, Eduard Berdnyk, a Ph.D. candidate at the Ukrainian Catholic University, expressed reservations about the future of the Lavra to The Pillar

For Berdnyk, the loss of the UOC-MP’s monopoly position at the shrine raises questions about the monastery’s future form. 

“The UOC-MP, in my opinion, should not have this exclusive right, this monopoly on historical heritage, on historical shrines. Moreover, they used this property with numerous violations of the terms of the contract.” 

“But,” he said, “there is also a challenge here: How will it be realized now? Will it be transferred to another church on the same terms and according to the same principle, or not?”

Berdnyk said he doubts whether the activities of the UOC-MP can be banned in Ukraine for their connection with the Russian Orthodox Church, as this connection is part of their religious identity. Therefore, the state authorities' specific actions could qualify as religious persecution. 

To prevent that situation, Berdnyk believes, the state must emphasize that it is not an abstract spiritual connection with Russia that is the problem, but rather active collaboration. The state needs to identify and publicize specific examples of crimes committed by particular representatives of the Church in order to justify its actions.

“It is problematic that the UOC-MP is identified with its bishops, with its priests, and, accordingly, with collaboration. While this might seem understandable, it is a great simplification, which, even during the war, I wonder whether we can afford,” Berdnyk said.

“I would very much like the state to work on identifying collaborators, condemning specific cases, even investigating every bishop from the UOC-MP for collaboration. If there were such cases, I would like to see criminal proceedings and sentences passed. And from what I know, there were such cases. But I would like to see this hard work done by the state.”

Berdnyk was born and raised in Kryvyi Rih in eastern Ukraine, where the UOC-MP holds a dominant position. He said he also doubts that the activities of this Church can be restricted throughout the country. 

“Now in several western regions there are almost no active UOC-MP communities left,” he told The Pillar. “But if we talk, for example, about cities such as Kryvyi Rih, where the Moscow Patriarchate owns most of the parishes in the city and they remain the basis of the city's religious life and other denominations have few churches there, what can we do?"

Berdnyk is also critical of the OCU’s response to the state's actions against the UOC-MP. 

In his opinion, despite restrained statements of the OCU leadership at the lower level, there is a desire among its senior ranks to turn the situation to their advantage. 

“It seems to me that they are behaving the way the UOC-MP would behave if they were in the same position,” Berdnyk told The Pillar. “They are pushing the state to act. They behave like a mirror image. And these mirror actions are an attempt to make up for the previous years when everything was the other way around.” 

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Ksenia Pidopryhora is a member of St. Demetrius parish in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, which joined the UGCC a few years ago and before that had been part of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

She told The Pillar that “As a trend, I like what is happening at the Kyiv Cave Monastery." 

“I don't understand why this did not happen at least from the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Given that the Lavra building never belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate, this should have been done long ago.”

On the other hand, Pidopryhora expressed surprise that the state seems to be handing effective control of the Lavra from one Orthodox Church to another.

"It is also strange that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has so quickly oriented itself and said, ‘Yes, this is our Lavra now because we are the most Orthodox of the Orthodox after the Russian Orthodox Church’” she said. 

“In my opinion, it would be necessary, first of all, to discuss all this with other Churches in Ukraine. I know that in Ukraine, there are joint meetings of all religious communities and Churches [ the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations].” 

“The fact that the OCU quickly created its own monastery there looks a bit like raiding,” Pidopryhora said. “It looks like pride and arrogance.” 

“I would like to see the Council of Churches of Ukraine discuss this, because if it belongs to the state, then perhaps different Churches and religious organizations in Ukraine could have services there,” Pidopryhora said. “If the state grants the right to lease, why can't it be a common shrine with more broad access? We do not have a state church.” 

“As a person who grew up with the UAOC and is now a Greek Catholic, I want unity. I do not yet see the same desire from my Orthodox friends,” said Pidopryhora. “But this could be a chance for a precedent where we could see how ready everyone is to negotiate and start creating this mutual understanding and trust right now.”

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