Unholy Connection: Why Ukraine is ordering Orthodox monks from historic church to leave premises

Ukraine has seen many bloody battles since Russia began its ‘special military operation’ in February last year. However, Kyiv, and may be the world, has not seen one that is unfolding outside the Pechersk Lavra — the 11th-Century Orthodox cave monastery complex in the heart of the capital city.

On one side are the monks of the monastery, who are refusing to leave, and on the other side are police officials and authorities from the Ukrainian culture ministry trying to evict them from what is considered as the spiritual heart of the nation.

The standoff between the monastery monks and the police came to a head on Wednesday — the day of the eviction, with many of the members of the church refusing to leave and church goers calling it ‘lawlessness’.

We break down the entire situation — from the history of this monastery to why Ukraine wants to evict the members.

The Pechersk Lavra Monastery

The Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is a historic Eastern Orthodox Christian monastery set on 28 hectares of grassy hills above the Dnipro River in Pechersk, Kyiv’s city centre.

The monastery is considered to be one of the most sacred religious sites in Ukraine. The UNESCO-recognised site is owned by the Government of Ukraine as a national reserve and much of it has long been open to the public.

The complex includes historic churches, relics and icons, catacombs, a state museum filled with medieval chronicles and other artefacts, as well as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s main theological academy with its own museum and residential buildings.

The monastery’s cluster of gold-domed churches is a feast for the eyes and for believers this is the holiest ground in the country.

The Monastery of the Caves, also known as Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, is one of the holiest sites of Eastern Orthodox Christians. AP

The eviction

The eviction of over 100 monks, students and priests from the historic site comes after a commission discovered multiple violations of the tenancy agreement of the complex. Since 2013, the monastery had a lease agreement to use part of the site for free.

However, the Ukrainian government in a recent investigation found that there were 36 illegally built structures on the site and damage to important cultural heritage. This led to authorities issuing an eviction order on 10 March, asking the monastery’s members to vacate the premises by 29 March.

However, the issue is political too, which has its foundation in the ongoing war. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church splintered in 2018 into two factions with almost the same name — the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). The latter has historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, supports Vladimir Putin and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

A police officer checks a car next to the entrance to compound of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery. Reuters

Despite the Ukrainian Orthodox Church claiming loyalty to Ukraine, there have been allegations of the church and its senior members still supporting Moscow. In fact, last year, Ukrainian authorities carried out a raid at Lavra — which is part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. An inquiry was also commissioned in November 2022 after a video emerged from a prayer in Lavra, where parishioners were seen praying for Russia. The priests later claimed it was fake.

The Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, has also conducted several searches in various buildings of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, including the Lavra. As of February, the SBU is investigating some 60 criminal proceedings against pro-Russian clerics, many of whom are suspected of collaboration with the Russian occupying army in various regions.

Also read: Priests or spies? How churches in Ukraine are being used in the war

Reactions to the eviction

The eviction has prompted various reactions from the public as well as officials.

Metropolitan Clement, head of the UOC press office, said there were “no legal grounds” for the expulsion and according to a BBC report said, “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.”

Devotees of the church also denounced the move with many of them standing outside the premises chanting slogans and holding placards to condemn the move. Lubov Bank, a 60-year-old choir singer from the central city of Poltava, who is against the eviction said to BBC, “They (the government) don’t follow the constitution. Monks are real angels. I don’t want the authorities to do this.”

One UOC priest, Father Rustik, said he had travelled several hundred kilometres from the Dnipropetrovsk region. “I believe that the monks here are being unlawfully expelled and the property and churches for which we worked many years are being taken away, “he told Reuters.

Archimandrite Nikon, a high-ranking church figure, told AFP on Wednesday that the Ukrainian government’s demand was “unfair” and “wrong” for both the monks and Ukrainian citizens.

Even the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights said it was concerned that “State actions against the UOC” could prove “discriminatory” and urged a “fair trial” for those facing criminal charges.

Even as members of the monastery appear not to vacate the premises, Oleksandr Tkachenko, the Ukrainian culture minister has said that the authorities won’t use force to expel the monks.

Believers pray outside a church during a service led by Metropolitan Onufriy, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, accused of being linked to Moscow, in the compound of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery. Reuters

Schism of Ukraine church and the war

For decades, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was the only formally recognised branch of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine. In Soviet times, it was a branch of the Russian church and remained under its jurisdiction after Ukraine’s in 1991.

Around this time, two other churches emerged and in 2018, the two merged to become the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This institution was grant formal independence in 2019. However, the Russian Orthodox Church immediately declared it schismatic.

Also read: Russia claims it’s fighting Satanism in Ukraine: How far are they pushing this narrative?

This division became even more prominent after the war broke out last year. This is because, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Father Kirill, has been supporting the war, which even led to Pope Francis urging him not to “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy” and instead to work for peace.

In May last year, Ukrainian Orthodox Church proclaimed independence from the Russian church but distrust remains, with many stating that the monks parrot Russia’s views on the war.

With inputs from agencies

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