Monks in Defiance: The Ecclesiastical Standoff at the Ukrainian Monastery

Caves Monastery, Ukraine
The 1,000-year old Caves Monastery, one of the world's holiest sites for Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church Resists Eviction from Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery

Monks in Defiance: In the ancient heart of Kyiv, a most unseemly conflict has erupted, pitting the devout against the state, and laying bare the tangled web of ecclesiastical and political allegiances that have long haunted this troubled land. At the centre of this maelstrom stands the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a 980-year-old monastery that has become the latest battleground in the ongoing struggle between Ukraine and Russia.

It was there that scuffles broke out outside the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery on Thursday as Orthodox monks and their supporters defied an eviction order issued by the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) has been occupying the 980-year-old monastery, which is located in the heart of the Ukrainian capital.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a religious institution that has been present in Ukraine since the 10th century. It is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, with millions of followers both in Ukraine and throughout the diaspora. The church has played a significant role in Ukrainian history and culture, acting as a unifying force during times of political strife and social upheaval.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery
Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery

In recent years, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been the subject of significant debate and controversy. In 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople granted the church independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, a move that was widely celebrated by Ukrainian nationalists but criticized by many in Moscow.

The schism has added to the complex political and cultural landscape of Ukraine and highlights the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Despite these challenges, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remains an important institution for millions of believers and continues to play a significant role in shaping the country’s cultural identity.

The tensions between the Ukrainian government and the UOC have been rising since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which occupies the hallowed grounds of the monastery, has been accused by Kyiv of maintaining ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, a charge that the UOC vehemently denies, stating that it broke all links with the Russian Church in May 2022.

The eviction order, which was issued by a court in February 2023, has sparked a heated standoff between the government and the monks. The government claims that the UOC has been illegally occupying the property and has refused to pay rent, while the monks argue that the move is an attack on their religious freedom.

The Lavra has also launched a court case, challenging the lease agreement termination, as well as demanding the government explain what exactly it had violated. According to the monastery’s lawyer, protoireus Nikita Chekman, the case was taken on by a Kyiv court, with the first hearing on the case set to take place on April 26. The lawsuit also asks the court to forbid the government from taking any actions against the monks while the case is being considered.

Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Pavel, also known as Paul, is the Archbishop of Vyshgorod and Chernobyl

Senior bishop in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) has issued a strongly-worded rebuke to President Vladimir Zelensky over his role in a crackdown that is gripping the country’s largest religious denomination.

“I am telling you, Mr President, and your entire pack, that our tears will not fall to the ground, but on your head,” Metropolitan Pavel said in a video address on Wednesday.

“You think today that after taking power on our backs, [based] on our wishes, you can treat us like that. Our Lord will not forgive this action, neither to you nor to your family,” the bishop warned.

Rich in lore and steeped in mysticism, the 11th-century Caves Monastery is a treasure of unparalleled cultural importance.

kiev pechersk lavra monastery kiev ukraine 6
Pechersk Lavra Monastery

Together with the Saint Sophia Cathedral, the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. Pavel heads the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, the largest Orthodox monastery in the country, established some 970 years ago.

The Ukrainian ministry of culture denied the UOC a renewal of tenancy in the property, meaning that some 220 monks living there would be “kicked out to the streets,” as Pavel described it. The eviction deadline comes this week.

The situation came to a head on Thursday when police attempted to enter the monastery to enforce the eviction order. The monks and their supporters responded by forming a human chain around the building and refusing to let the police enter.

UOC supporters gather at the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

Scuffles broke out as police attempted to force their way through the crowd, with both sides trading blows and using tear gas. Several people were injured in the clashes, and dozens were arrested.

The situation remains tense, with the monks and their supporters vowing to resist any attempt to remove them from the monastery. The government has called for calm and has urged the monks to comply with the court order, but it is unclear how the situation will be resolved.

Critics of the Ukrainian government have accused it of using the eviction as a political tool to marginalize the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and promote a more pro-Western agenda. They argue that the move is part of a broader campaign to assert the government’s authority and gain favour with pro-Western forces in the country.

As the standoff at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery continues, the fate of the monks remains uncertain. While the government has vowed to enforce the court ruling, the monks and their supporters have shown no signs of backing down, setting the stage for further clashes in the heart of the Ukrainian capital.

What lies beneath this ecclesiastical dispute is a deeper struggle for identity and belonging, as Ukraine seeks to assert a national identity independent from Russia the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra has long been a symbol of spiritual unity for the Orthodox faithful, and like its country it now finds itself at the centre of a bitter and divisive conflict that threatens to tear apart the very fabric of Ukrainian society.

As for the monks of the UOC they stand in defiance against the edicts of their government, one cannot help but wonder what the future holds for this beleaguered nation, and whether the sacred walls of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra will continue to bear witness to a people’s faith, or become yet another casualty in a seemingly endless war.

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