KYIV, Ukraine — The courtyards of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra have been busy with more than just the usual worshippers, going to and from its churches in the sprawling monastic complex that is Ukraine’s most revered Orthodox site.
Also busy Friday were people in civilian clothes, loading cars with plasma televisions, furniture and other items from the buildings — helping the resident monks remove belongings of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or UOC, before a threatened government eviction on March 29.
There also were police officers checking the cars to make sure no one was removing items that belong to the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra preserve, which oversees the complex.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is reverberating here in a struggle for control of the Lavra, known in English as the Monastery of the Caves. The complex contains church, monastic and museum buildings; its oldest parts date back to the dawn of Christianity here a millennium ago.
The dispute is part of a wider religious conflict playing out in parallel with the war.
The government of Ukraine has already been cracking down on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine.
The parliament is considering a “draft law on making it impossible to operate in Ukraine religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation” — which could impact the UOC, depending on how it’s interpreted.
The UOC has insisted that it's loyal to Ukraine, has denounced the Russian invasion from the start and has even declared its independence from Moscow.
But Ukrainian security agencies have claimed that some in the Ukrainian church have maintained close ties with Moscow. They’ve raided numerous holy sites of the church and later posted photos of rubles, Russian passports and leaflets with messages from the Moscow patriarch as proof that some church officials have been loyal to Russia.
The raids started after a Nov. 12 service at the Pechersk Lavra complex, where a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was filmed talking about the “awakening” of Russia.
The Ukrainian government has said the Lavra, including a UOC seminary and offices, is a hub of “Russian world” propaganda — an ideology touting Moscow’s political and spiritual hegemony over neighboring Slavic lands such as Ukraine.
The government also has sanctioned the Lavra's abbot for alleged pro-Moscow activities. It already allowed the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine, or OCU, to use one of the Lavra's churches for a Christmas service.
But now it’s ordering the Ukrainian Orthodox Church out of the premises entirely.
The stakes are high. The complex has been called the “pearl of Ukraine” and the “Vatican” of Ukrainian Orthodoxy.
The site is owned by the government, and the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that as of March 29, it was terminating the lease allowing the free use of religious buildings on the property. The government claims that the monks violated their lease by making alterations to the historic site and other technical infractions.
“There are many new buildings there, and this is a UNESCO site, which do not have relevant documents and permits. The legality of such new buildings also raises legitimate questions,” Ukraine’s minister of culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, said on Ukrainian television. “The state must manage what belongs to it.”
The monks of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church dispute this, saying these claims are a pretext, and they refuse to leave.
Still, they’re moving out what possessions they can in preparation for a possible forcible eviction.
“We understand that we will not be given the opportunity to function properly and therefore we need to remove certain things and prevent their destruction,” said Metropolitan Clement, the head of the UOC press office.
Earlier, the monks said they won’t leave Lavra under any circumstances.
Metropolitan Clement, in an interview with The Associated Press, said lawyers for the UOC appealed to the Ministry of Culture to provide documents explaining its reasons for breaking the agreement.
However, according to Clement, the ministry informed them that such documents won't be provided, because they have been marked for official use, as if they are classified.
The government’s eviction order doesn’t explicitly say the monastery could be turned over to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
But that church’s leader, Metropolitan Epiphany, issued a statement directed at the Lavra monks, indicating knowledge of changes to come.
The eviction won’t put an end to monastery worship and ministry at the complex, he said.
Metropolitan Epiphany said services will continue and be conducted in their ancient Slavic language along with modern Ukrainian.
“The current affairs of the monastery will be managed by those who know the traditions and life of the monastery … and who have not tarnished themselves with devotion to the ‘Russian world,’" the metropolitan said.
Epiphany claimed that the UOC is a “tool of hybrid aggression against Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture sought to offer similar assurances that Lavra’s monastic life would continue.
The Kremlin, however, cites the termination of the UOC’s lease as further proof that Russia’s actions over the past year in Ukraine are justified — claiming that Russia is defending a beleaguered Orthodox population.
Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church who backed Moscow’s invasion last year, has asked Pope Francis and other religious leaders to intervene in the Lavra controversy.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been ultimately loyal to the Moscow patriarch since the 17th century, though it has had broad autonomy and has strongly denounced the Russian invasion.
The independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine received formal recognition in 2019 from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who has the top position of honor in Orthodoxy but not the universal power of a pope. Kirill hasn't recognized the OCU as legitimate.
The UOC itself declared full independence from Moscow last year. But the OCU and its supporters say that the UOC retains strong ties and sympathies to Moscow.
The changes in the works at the Lavra received mixed reactions from frequent visitors who were at the complex on Friday.
For Oleksandr, 32, who refused to be identified with his last name, it was upsetting. He said that the UOC is clearly connected to Russia, but he personally hadn't heard any church propaganda, and he plans to attend UOC services elsewhere.
But the changes were welcomed by Oksana Naumenko, who has been working for years in the academy located in the Lavra complex. She said it fulfilled one of her lifelong dreams of having the singing and prayer at Lavra happen in the Ukrainian language.
“It is very large-scale and global event in our history. It is possible that not everyone realizes this,” she said. “But perhaps our children will know at what price our religion and language are being acquired.”
Peter Smith contributed to this report from Pittsburgh.
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