Tens of thousands of Kiev residents took to the streets earlier this week in protest and prayer. The reason was an announcement on March 10 by the Zelensky government that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) would have to relinquish control of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, a large monastery complex that includes the Holy Dormition cathedral and monastery, the church’s headquarters. The monks have been given until March 29 to leave.
The lavra was founded in 1051 and is the spiritual home of Orthodoxy in Ukraine. It fell into disrepair during the Soviet era. The Holy Dormition cathedral was turned into an anti-religious museum, and many structures in the complex were destroyed. In 1988, the millennium of Slavic Christianity, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed monks to return. Over the following years, the UOC slowly repaired the damaged buildings and rebuilt the lavra into a thriving religious site. It is that church that the government is now evicting.
This eviction is an escalation of the wave of persecution that began late last year, on the pretext that the church is under Russian control. The UOC is in fact independent and not subordinate to the Moscow patriarchate. Its leader, Metropolitan Onufriy, has unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion from the very beginning, saying it has “no justification either with God or with men” and has “brought death and destruction to the Ukrainian land.”
In 2022, the church provided more than 180 tons of humanitarian aid directly to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Vehicles were donated, medical aid of almost 4 million hryvnias ($108,000) was given to wounded servicemen, and overall direct aid from parishes equaled nearly 30 million hryvnias ($812,000). All clergy were asked to donate resources, blood, anything they could spare, and churches were opened up as refuges and bomb shelters. About 150 UOC churches have already been destroyed by the invasion.
The Zelensky government says that Orthodox Ukrainians are still free to worship with the smaller, breakaway church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This rings hollow. The OCU was set up during the Poroshenko years as a nationalist scheme by thoroughly uncanonical means that are still not recognized by many other Orthodox churches (including the Orthodox Church of America, which continues to pray for the UOC). For a practicing Orthodox Christian, the canonicity of the Church and its unity are central to worship. Perhaps the best parallel would be when Maoist China offered Catholics the chance to join the Communist-affiliated Catholic Patriotic Association, which did not accept the primacy of the Roman pontiff. Everyone realized that this was no substitute.
The 200 monks and 300 seminarians who make the Kiev monastery their home have vowed they will not be forcefully removed when the March 29 deadline comes, one saying, “It is our shrine, our home, we will not leave it of our own free will.”
The Zelensky government’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, has said that there are no plans to use violence to evict the monks. However, according to Archbishop Victor Kotsaba of Baryshivka of the UOC, independent “radicals” will descend on the lavra when the deadline arrives.
“The brotherhood are not prepared to abandon the monastery come March 29 as this is not based on any laws. At the same time, radicals have announced that on the 29th, they will come to the lavra to evict the brotherhood by force,” he says. “Unless the government acts to bring order and safety there will be a clash and confrontation. For that reason we hope that the government will correctly act in this matter.”
Archbishop Victor appealed to the government to stand for basic religious freedom:
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the church of the Ukrainian people. Millions of our citizens are desperate. We have categorically condemned Russian invasion of Ukraine and supported our sovereignty. We hope the Ukrainian government will support human rights to allow its citizens the freedom of conscience.
So far, these appeals have fallen on deaf ears. The UOC’s governing body met on Monday and all nine members went as a group to seek a meeting with President Zelensky. After waiting three hours, Zelensky’s press secretary told them they would not be seen.
The United States funds the Zelensky government. We have some say over what they do. Unless we act now and ensure our tax dollars are not used to pay for religious persecution, next week Kiev will be filled with videos of loyal Ukrainians being arrested, or worse, simply for wanting the right to pray according to their consciences. What better propaganda videos for Putin will there be than that?