Easter conflict avoided at disputed Christian center in Ukraine, but tensions remain

Believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has been linked to Moscow, pray while they block an entrance to a church at a compound of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery amid Russia's attack on Ukraine March 31, 2023. (OSV News photo/Valentyn Ogirenko, via Reuters)

KYIV, Ukraine (OSV News) ─ During Orthodox Easter, the presence of the police prevented a conflict in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, known in English as the Monastery of the Caves, between Ukraine's Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, or UOC, and the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine, or OCU. But whether or not the Moscow-linked church will be evicted from the lavra remains an open question.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is one of Ukraine’s largest Christian centers and is a monument of history and architecture. The lavra, or monastery, belongs to the state, and religious organizations must have a lease to use it. The monument is under the jurisdiction of the National Reserve. But its properties -- the lavra is a complex that contains churches, museums and monastic buildings -- have been used by the UOC free of charge for decades.

The question of evicting the UOC from the lavra was not raised until Russia's aggression against Ukraine began, especially after the clergy was accused of collaborating with the occupiers.

On March 29, Ukraine terminated the contract with the UOC on its Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra lease, but the UOC is refusing to leave. The UOC filed a lawsuit to stop the eviction that was later dismissed by the Kyiv Commercial Court, but Ukraine's Moscow-linked Orthodox Church never complied with the court's decision. It still remains in the lower part of the monastery.

This Easter, observed April 16, the UOC and OCU celebrated liturgies at the lavra at different times and in different churches. Heavy presence of Ukraine's police prevented incidents. The National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Reserve gave permission to the OCU so that, for the first time in 300 years, the liturgy was performed in Ukrainian -- not the Old Slavic, or Slavonic, language.

The clergy of the OCU held a divine service in the Assumption Cathedral, which is the main church of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Several people who gathered for the service said that they prayed for Ukraine's victory in the war, for strong health for the Ukrainians and for peace.

A second OCU liturgy, held in the Dormition Cathedral and celebrated by the lavra’s vicar, Archimandrite Avraamiy, and attended by a big crowd of faithful bringing traditional Easter baskets.

Meanwhile in the lower lavra, the Easter liturgies of the Moscow-linked UOC were held in the church in honor of Agapetus of the Kyiv Caves and in the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross with the participation of Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the UOC. The service here was conducted in the church's traditional language.

The issue of eviction of the UOC from the lavra has been brewing for years and intensified during the war. The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has supported President Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine.

In November 2022, Ukraine's counter-intelligence service, police officers and National Guard searched the lavra after a priest spoke favorably about Russia during a service.

On March 10, the National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Reserve announced that the agreement made in 2013 regarding the free use of churches by a religious organization would be terminated, and the UOC was to vacate the territory by March 29.

A state commission working in the lower lavra for the past months discovered violations of the terms of the agreement on the use of monuments.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted March 13 that the authorities will not allow Russia to destroy Ukrainian lavras (monasteries) or steal any valuables from them.

"This week, there is also a movement to strengthen our spiritual independence. Society sees this. And I see Ukrainians' approval of these steps, which are quite legitimate. So we will continue this movement of ours," the president said in his evening address. "We will not allow a terrorist state to have at least some opportunity to manipulate the spirituality of our people, destroy Ukrainian shrines -- our lavras -- or steal any valuables from them."
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Lilia Kovalyk-Vasiuta writes for OSV News from Kyiv, Ukraine.


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