Battle over ownership of Ukrainian monastery heats up again

Dozens of Orthodox Christians who support their church’s historic ties to Moscow prevented Ukrainian authorities from taking possession of buildings at the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv, surrounding the entrance and blocking officials from entering.

An aerial photo shows the thousand-year-old Monastery of Caves, also known as Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the holiest site of Eastern Orthodox Christians, taken through morning fog during a sunrise in Kyiv, Ukraine, Nov. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)

(RNS) — Orthodox Christians who support their church’s historic ties to Moscow prevented the Ukrainian government from taking possession of several buildings at the Monastery of the Caves complex in Kyiv on Tuesday (July 4), with dozens of protesters surrounding the entrance and blocking officials from entering.

The fate of the 1,000-year-old Pechersk Lavra complex has been in question since Russia’s invasion in February 2022 brought increased scrutiny on Ukrainian Orthodox Church clergy, some of whom were accused of spying on behalf of the invaders. Though the UOC has condemned the Russian invasion and declared full administrative independence from Moscow in 2022, it has remained suspect for maintaining what its leaders call a “spiritual tie” to Moscow.

Both Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Christians trace their Slavic Christian roots to a mass baptism in 10th-century Kyiv and claim a special connection to the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. 

In March 2023, the Ukrainian government, which has owned the monastery since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., did not renew the UOC’s lease. The Ukrainian Culture Ministry threatened to evict some 700 UOC monks, as well as students and staff at the UOC’s main theological academy and a state museum on the grounds and workers at the site’s cathedral and other churches.

Though some have left voluntarily, moving to other UOC monasteries to avoid the commotion and media attention, many have defiantly remained. “We’re still in the Lavra against all odds,” Nikodim Kalonger, a UOC deacon who lives at the monastery, told Religion News Service. “It’s our home. We built it to live forever in it.”

The lease termination allowed the rival independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, widely recognized in 2019 and associated with Ukrainian nationalism, to celebrate Easter in the cathedral for the first time since Ukraine’s independence.

On Tuesday, Maxim Ostapenko, a specialist in protecting historical monuments and the government’s acting general director of the site, told Ukrainian Orthodox media that representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were notified of the plan to seal off buildings not being used for religious purposes. He said the UOC representatives had agreed to grant access to the buildings. 

A lawyer for the UOC, Archpriest Nikita Chekman, said in a statement on Telegram that the commission’s move to seal off the buildings is illegal because a court case over the UOC’s eviction is ongoing.

“Under the circumstances set forth, the eviction of the monks, the groundless sealing and restriction of access to the premises contain signs of a criminal offense — arbitrariness,” Chekman said.

In its own statement, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture asked the police to “take preventative measures” against the unknown people who blocked access to the buildings, which had until recently housed workshops where monks make icons and vestments used in religious services. Kalonger said the buildings should be considered religious spaces because they supply the church with necessary items and provide income to the monks, who sell items to pilgrims.

At noon on Wednesday, hundreds gathered to pray outside the buildings, Kalonger said. 

The fight over the monastery reflects the larger split between the UOC and OCU, both of which claim they are the largest Orthodox church in Ukraine. Data on individual parish loyalties is difficult to verify. In April, Metropolitan Vladyka Anthony, chancellor of the UOC, told RNS that parishes switching between the two groups had led to violence among their members and priests. 

“We have a war now and people are closing down churches, split between which are loyal and unloyal,” Anthony said at the time. “This does not help the unification of Ukrainians. How can a soldier fight for Ukraine when he knows his mother is getting beaten up for attending UOC?”

In December, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that a law had been drafted that could have banned UOC activities, but it was never adopted, evidence that Maksym Vasin, executive director of the Institute for Religious Freedom in Ukraine, offered as proof that the Ukrainian government had not to that point violated the religious freedom of the UOC.

But Metropolitan Pavlo, the former abbot of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, has been under house arrest since April 1 for charges of inciting religious enmity and denying Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and particular priests and hierarchs have been accused of spreading Russian propaganda justifying the war, among other crimes.

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