Richard Lloyd Parry The Times December 5, 2022
The raid began at dawn and went on all day. Church services were interrupted as soldiers and security agents spread across the vast territory of the ancient monastery. They searched churches and chapels, offices and the personal quarters of priests, monks and acolytes.
By the time they left it was obvious that the Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kyiv would never be the same. It was the start of what is turning into a legal assault by the Ukrainian government on one of the two denominations of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
President Zelensky has set in motion criminal investigations and new legislation intended to snuff out what many believe is a pro-Russian fifth column inside the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. “We have to create conditions where no actors dependent on the aggressor state will have an opportunity to manipulate Ukrainians and weaken Ukraine from within,” Zelensky said on Thursday.
Although intense fighting continues in the east of the country, the US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, reported on Saturday “a reduced tempo” in the conflict, as both sides use the icy winter months to regroup.
Whatever the military situation, a new war is opening up in Ukraine’s churches, monasteries and convents which have for years been a proxy battlefield for the struggle between Ukraine and Russia. It centres on the competition between the older Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its young rival, which calls itself the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. There is little difference between them in theology and liturgy. But the latter is under the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, which recognised it in 2019, after a break away from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The older denomination has historically recognised the authority of the Russian Church in Moscow. Its head, Patriarch Kirill, is a fervent supporter of President Putin. The Russian invasion in February, and Kirill’s support for the war, placed Ukraine’s church in a dilemma, and in May it officially broke away from Moscow.
Its leader in Ukraine, Metropolitan [Bishop] Onufriy denounced the war as the “sin of Cain” and told his priests to stop praying for Kirill. But many Ukrainians believe that the sympathies of the hierarchy, and many priests, are still with the Russian invader.
“It’s not about religion – it’s a matter of national security,” says Solomiia Bobrovska, an MP and member of Ukraine’s parliamentary security committee. She said the Russian Church was part of the network of the FSB [the Russian state security service].”
According to a survey two years ago, 14 per cent of Ukrainians were loyal to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, compared with 34 per cent for its younger rival. Then, early last month, a video was posted on social media of a priest leading a secular song about the “awakening” of “Mother Rus”, the historical territory encompassing Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which is invoked by Moscow nationalists as justification for the invasion. “That used up our last drop of patience,” Bobrovska says.
Built on a cliff overlooking the Dnipro river, the golden domes of Pechersk Lavra are one of Ukraine’s most famous and visited religious sites. The Security Service of Ukraine questioned 850 people during its raid, using lie detectors for some, and searched 350 buildings. It has reported uncovering “suspicious Russian citizens”, pro-Russian propaganda, $79, 425 in local currency, $145,541 and Russian roubles.
“I was conducting a service and I was told to finish,” says Metropolitan Kliment of Nizhyn and Prilutsky, a spokesman for the monastery. “They were very polite, they asked me if I had friends or family in Russia. That money is hardly a sensation – it wouldn’t even cover our monthly utility bills. When there is a war going on, why have all these people spent the whole day here, instead of doing something actually useful for national security?” Kliment was among a group of clergy who last week met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, during his visit to Kyiv. Kliment believes the video of the pro-Russian song is a fake.
Ten clergymen sanctioned over the weekend include Metropolitan Pavlo of Vyshhorod and Chornobyl, a member of Pechersk Lavra, who once described Ukrainians as “ungrateful Russians”. He faces financial restrictions and a five-year ban on owning land.
Zelensky’s speech on Thursday promised new laws “making it impossible for religious organisations affiliated with centres of influence in the Russian Federation to operate in Ukraine” and hinted that the government, which owns the land on which the monastery is built, could take it back.
1/ Worshippers pray at St Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv. Picture: Getty
2/ Ukraine President Zelensky has set in motion criminal investigations and new legislation intended to snuff out what many believe is a pro-Russian fifth column inside the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Picture: AFP
3/ A raid on the Pechersk Lavra monastery in Kyiv marked a turning point in the debate about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Picture: AFP