By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
KYIV/BUDAPEST (Worthy News) – On Wednesday, Orthodox Christian monks accused of maintaining links with Moscow refused to leave a historic monastery in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, despite a planned government-ordered eviction.
The Pechersk Lavra is a seat of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church (UOC), which split from the Moscow patriarchate after Russia’s invasion last year. But Ukraine’s government claims the top clergy have maintained ties with the Church in Moscow, which they deny.
Hundreds of worshippers braved light snowfall to gather in and outside the 11th-century golden-domed church to attend morning mass led by Metropolitan Pavlo, with many kneeling and praying on the streets.
Authorities said they would terminate the lease allowing the monks to occupy part of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra for free on March 29, but added the eviction process could take weeks.
The Ukrainian government, which owns the vast 11th Century monastery overlooking the Dnipro river, explained that the decision was made after a commission discovered “multiple violations” of the tenancy agreement of the complex, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
However, Metropolitan Pavlo told worshipers in and outside the complex during morning mass that “the law is on our side. According to the law, to the constitution, they cannot evict us.”
He added: “The case is in the hands of the courts… They don’t have the right to kick out clerics… until a judicial decision is reached.”
The ancient cave monastery has been crucial in Ukrainian and Russian history.
But the recent tensions also exposed divisions among the Ukrainian Orthodox community. In recent years, many have joined the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was granted independence in 2019. But millions still follow the UOC, which split from Moscow last May after centuries under its control.
As the standoff continued, Ukrainian culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, said the authorities “would not use force” to expel the monks. Tkachenko commented amid international concerns about a previous crackdown on UOC churches.
Last year, Ukraine’s security service raided the Lavra and other buildings belonging to the UOC, and dozens of clerics were detained.
The believers were accused of “treason and collaboration with Russia,” though the UOC said there was “no evidence” to support the charges.
Authorities claimed a UOC video emerged of pro-Russian propaganda being sung, “referring to the awakening of Mother Russia.”
The head of a diocese in the Vinnytsia area of central Ukraine was charged with preparing leaflets supporting the invasion.
The standoff comes at a challenging time for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who depends on Western military and economic support.
He has faced pressure from advocacy groups and government officials over alleged human rights violations of minorities, including Russian Christians and others, and to improve media, cultural and educational freedoms.
However, Zelensky’s government claims the UOC is inspired by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has echoed the rhetoric of the Kremlin in justifying the war in Ukraine.
Its head, Patriarch Kirill, suggested in sermons that Russia’s war is “a righteous” one, and critics said he failed to condemn the killing of innocent people in Ukraine.
Yet Hungary has refused to support European Union plans to add him to a long list of Russian persons facing sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans citing religious rights concerns.
Back in Kyiv, there was little trust in Kyiv’s government. Archimandrite Nikon said he feared the eviction of 200 monks and 300 students on the monastery grounds.
“Everything is possible; the devil is not sleeping,” he said.
Worshiper Mykolay, 49, complained that “this is lawlessness. A Godless government persecutes us Orthodox people.”
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