With the ongoing investigation concerning the Moscow-backed Kyiv monastery, Orthodox Church Metropolitan Pavlo Lebid, a staunch supporter of Russia’s genocide in Ukraine, has been placed under house arrest. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, a metropolitan is a bishop who presides over an ecclesiastical province, often called a metropolis and has authority over the bishops of the other dioceses within that province.
This is the latest in the intensifying power struggle between Ukraine’s Kremlin monk-loyalists and the Kyiv religious community in Pechersk Lavra, a historic monastery in the Ukrainian capital. The religious conflict has escalated into a national dispute between the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and has attracted global attention.
Ukraine’s top security agency has arrested Metropolitan Pavel on charges of justifying Russia’s aggression, which is considered a crime.
Prior to his house arrest, the Orthodox Church abbot continued his defiance against authorities to vacate the complex, in addition to cursing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this week and threatening him with damnation.
The Metropolitan also debunked the Security Service of Ukraine’s (SBU) claim that he had been a staunch supporter of Russia’s invasion, pointing to his accusers as “politically motivated.”
SBU agents trooped to his home this weekend, raided his home, and prosecutors requested that he be placed under house arrest pending the investigation.
Kremlin Clergy Spies, A House Divided
Monks as Kremlin’s spies, Ukrainian churches divided with conflicting loyalties to Ukraine or Moscow: the religious sector is a house divided as the Russian invasion of the territory wages on.
Scuffles occurred among protesting Kyiv residents at the site’s entrance Thursday, March 29, the supposed eviction schedule of the monastery monks, amidst recent raids and cleric arrests on charges of treason and collaboration with Russia.
Further, it has elicited international attention and religious rhetoric from Pope Francis in the Vatican, Russian clergy, and global human rights groups. This week’s Ukrainian order to evict the monks exposed divisions among the Ukrainian Orthodox community.
Pope Francis in the Vatican called for “respect” for religious sites in Ukraine earlier last week, mentioning the Russian-aligned UOC facing eviction.
The Ukrainian government gave a March 29 deadline last week to vacate its headquarters in the 980-year-old Pechersk Lavra complex, the latest move against a denomination that the government accuses of being pro-Russian and collaborating with Moscow.
Francis urged “the warring parties [in Ukraine] to respect religious sites” and praised those who devote their lives to prayer, “regardless of denomination.”
Russian Orthodox Church Bishop Patriarch Kirill, known to publicly support the Russian invasion of Ukraine since its attack on the European state in February of last year, unleashed controversial quotes in a public sermon, glorifying the supposed “heroism” of Russian soldiers in the ongoing war.
“If someone, driven by a sense of duty, the need to fulfil an oath, remains true to his calling and dies in the line of military duty, then he undoubtedly commits an act that is tantamount to a sacrifice… He sacrifices himself for others. And therefore, we believe that this sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed.”
Kirill’s rhetorical contentions come at a time when the Kremlin is escalating the war against Ukraine, annexing part of eastern Ukraine with massive losses to Ukrainian forces.
The dispute has drawn the attention of international human rights groups, who have called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and urged the Ukrainian government to respect the religious rights of the UOC.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has expressed concern about the situation and called on the Ukrainian government to ensure the eviction does not violate international human rights law.
Moscow-Backed UOC Continues To Support Ukraine Genocide
Orthodox church abbot Andriy Pavlenko was convicted as a spy last December, proven to be feeding information to the Russian army in eastern Ukraine.
In March last year, Pavlenko wrote to a Russian officer regarding information about Ukrainian soldiers, activists, and a rival priest in Sievierodonetsk.
“He needs to be killed,” he writes to the Russian military. “In the north, there are about 500 of them, with a mortar platoon, five armored personnel carriers, and three tanks.” Russian forces later riddle Sievierodonetsk with non-stop artillery firings.
The UOC, a seat of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church that split from the Moscow Patriarchate after Russia’s invasion last year, became controversial as Ukrainian officials suspect that some of its top clergy have maintained ties with Moscow, which they deny.
While the government ordered the UOC last week to leave the site, which it owns, the latter reasoned that there are no legal grounds for the expulsion of their clergy, and its members have continued to defy the eviction.
UOC press office head Metropolitan Clement said there were “no legal grounds” for the expulsion.
“If the government forces us to do it illegally, it’s called totalitarianism…We don’t need such a state or government. We have the constitution and laws. We don’t accept other methods.”
The Ukrainian government owns the 11th-century monastery, also known as the Monastery of the Caves. The agency in charge of the property notified the UOC earlier last month that the lease would be terminated on March 29.
The Russian Orthodox patriarch ruled the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) for centuries until the latter severed ties with Moscow in May in response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
As part of an investigation into suspected pro-Russian activity, security agents conducted a “counterintelligence” operation at the Pechersk Lavra and other UOC facilities in November.
The issue has also exposed tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the newly independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, with its independence granted in 2019.
Ukraine officials pointed out that the lease should be terminated for national security. The UOC’s work cannot be done inside Ukraine “from the standpoint of our security”, and must be halted.
The main Orthodox church in Ukraine is the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). According to a 2020 survey, 34% of Ukrainians identified as OCU members, while 14% identified as UOC members.
Symbol of Ukraine’s Rich Cultural Heritage
The Pechersk Lavra monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site symbolizing Ukraine’s rich cultural heritage.
The monastery, an important religious center for Orthodox Christians with a history dating back to the 11th century, has survived numerous invasions, wars, and political upheavals. Yet, its current dispute with the Ukrainian government is one of its most significant challenges.
While the outcome of the dispute remains uncertain, it is clear that tensions between the Ukrainian government and the UOC are likely to continue.
The situation has highlighted the complex relationship between religion and politics in Ukraine, where the Orthodox Church is deeply intertwined with the country’s history, culture, and identity.
Division Among The Ukrainian Orthodox Community
Many Ukrainians resisted Ukraine’s efforts to assert its authority over UOC, who view the church as essential to their national identity.
With sparked controversy and division among the Ukrainian Orthodox community, some believe the eviction is necessary to address violations of the tenancy agreement and curb suspected ties with Moscow.
Others, meantime, view the issue as a political decision that violates the constitution and unfairly targets monks and worshippers.
The issue has also exposed tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the newly independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was granted independence in 2019.
While millions of Ukrainians still follow the UOC, many have joined the independent church in recent years, growing in numbers during the year-long Russian aggression.
The controversial eviction comes amid broader tensions between Ukraine and Russia, which have been at odds since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and subsequent support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Church Expulsion Is To Protect Ukraine, Not A Religious Attack
The Ukrainian government’s decision to expel the UOC from the site is seen as a move to assert its authority over the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and to distance itself from Moscow.
Accused of violating religious freedom and using the monastery as a political tool to silence opposition voices, Ukraine officials insisted that the eviction order is not a religious attack but is necessary to protect the cultural heritage site and ensure that it is used in accordance with the law.
The officials further said that the UOC failed to adhere to its tenancy agreement’s terms, being involved in political activities that undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.
Meanwhile, the situation is complicated by the fact that the UOC has a significant following in Ukraine, particularly in the eastern and southern regions, where many people are ethnically Russian and have historical and cultural ties to Moscow.