Ukraine’s government says it will use legal means to evict monks and priests from an Orthodox monastery complex in Kyiv if they do not leave by a Wednesday deadline, arguing that their loyalty to a parent church in Moscow undermines Ukraine’s efforts to fight back against Russia’s military invasion.
With representatives of the monks and priests vowing to ignore the eviction order, the promise by Ukraine to remove them legally appeared to be an effort to avoid a direct confrontation at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, the most revered site in Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.
But how the eviction could play out remained unknown, highlighting the complicated place that the religious order holds in Ukraine amid the war.
Mykyta Poturaev, a senior Ukrainian lawmaker, said on Wednesday that the authorities would “be very polite” and remove the monks and priests in “a judicial way,” suggesting the matter could be taken to court.
The monastery is partly controlled by Ukraine’s national, independent branch of the Orthodox church, but some of the priests and monks there belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which recognizes the religious leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. That church’s leader has spoken out strongly in favor of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians argue that the church has not clearly stated its position on the conflict and is therefore compromised. The Ukrainian security services have gone further, describing the Russian-aligned church as an incubator of pro-Russia sentiment and infiltrated by priests and monks who have directly aided Moscow in the war.
Dozens of priests and monks from the Moscow Patriarchate have been arrested in recent months, accused of spying for the Kremlin and even helping to direct Russian airstrikes. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has said the expulsions — which affect roughly 200 monks and 300 trainees — are needed for “spiritual independence.”
Last week, the Ukrainian authorities said that monks affiliated with Moscow could no longer visit the caves beneath the monastery complex, which are full of entombed monks, religious relics and icons.
On Tuesday, priests and monks haphazardly loaded cars and trucks with religious and household items including candelabras, televisions and pictures. At the entrance to the monastery site, police officers made what appeared to be cursory vehicle checks.
But Metropolitan Clement, the spokesman for the branch of the church being evicted, said that monks and priests were not leaving, only “moving small things.”
“Everyone will stay,” he said. “They all plan to stay here. There’s no legal basis to leave.”
Some worshipers have said they will stand by the monks. On Wednesday, hundreds of people braved showers of sleet to attend a regular candlelit service at the Church of the Ascension of the Cross at the monastery complex.
The monastery site, whose origins date back more than 1,000 years, is a network of cathedrals, bell towers, stone fortification walls, caves and other architectural monuments perched on a steep hillside that overlooks the Dnipro River in the heart of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, it is a cradle of Christian Orthodoxy for Russians and Ukrainians, and important for Orthodox Christians across Eastern Europe.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has focused government attention on sectors of Ukrainian society that are viewed as disloyal to the state. Mr. Clement said he could not guarantee that all priests in his church supported Ukraine in the war. But he argued that some Ukrainian teachers and members of other professions also did not support the state, and that those professions were not under attack.
He said that the church had filed a legal challenge to the government’s order and argued that the case was testing Ukraine’s status as a democratic and pluralistic society.
Pointing to the many people in Orthodox congregations, he said: “Our believers are not committing terrorist acts. Their sons and daughters are fighting in the war.” He added, “I am a citizen of Ukraine, and I have supported Ukraine all my life.”
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