Ukrainian monks face fallout of church split
Orthodox Christian schism threatens peaceful life of cave-dwelling brothers in country’s holiest location
FOR a millennium, monks have been secluding themselves from the world in the caves of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, where 120 mummified brothers lie in glass-covered coffins along low, sloping corridors.
Their solitude has been increasingly interrupted, however, since the top patriarch in Istanbul said in October he would recognise a new Ukrainian church independent of Russia.
The move has sparked the biggest schism in Orthodox Christianity in 350 years, with the established Ukrainian Orthodox Church remaining loyal to the Moscow patriarchate.
That loyalty remained unchanged even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed separatists in an ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The existing church controls the Kiev-Pechersk complex, which is a Unesco world heritage site and the holiest place in Ukraine, as well as 12,000 of the country’s 18,000 churches.
Next Saturday, Ukrainian religious leaders will hold a “unification assembly” to lay the groundwork for the new church and choose its leader.
However, late last month, employees of the culture ministry, which technically owns the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, suddenly came to take an inventory of the holy relics there. The next day, agents of the Ukrainian security service raided the Lavra, charging the head abbot with the “incitement of religious hatred”.
The pressure came after the justice ministry said it was cancelling the right of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to use another monastery complex in Pochayiv.
However, the monks of Kiev-Pechersk say they are standing firm.
Abbot Joseph told The Sunday Telegraph that monks went to prison in the past for resisting Soviet crackdowns and would resist this one. He added: “The monks won’t leave as long as the army doesn’t come.”
When Prince Vladimir converted from paganism in 988 and brought Orthodox Christianity to much of what is now Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, the seat of power was in Kiev.
By the 17th century, however, Moscow was in control of Ukrainian lands, and the Constantinople patriarch, the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, gave the Russian patriarch dominion over the church here.
That was reversed by patriarch Bartholomew’s decision in October, which came after lobbying by Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine.
In response, Vladimir Putin warned “politicking in such a delicate sphere has always led to heavy consequences”.
Patriarch Filaret of Kiev, the leader of one of two splinter churches in Ukraine, accused the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate of being an agent of the Kremlin.
“Without an independent church there won’t be an independent Ukrainian state, and Moscow knows this well,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “It’s fighting to keep the Ukrainian church dependent on Moscow.”
However, the priest in charge of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kramatorsk blamed the media for exaggerating his church’s links to Moscow.
“We are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It’s you journalists who have decided we are the Moscow patriarchate,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “Why do you lie? Those who lie can get a fist to the face.”
The Moscow patriarchate church’s spokesman Archbishop Kliment said it rejected the creation of a new church because of canonical law.
He argued that Mr Poroshenko, who is in danger of losing re-election in March, was the one using church affairs to political ends.
“For more than 300 years, Constantinople didn’t interfere,” he said. “Now when there’s an election on and the president is using the church issue, Constantinople has … interfered in the religious life of our country”.
Thirty-nine per cent of Ukraine’s 30million Orthodox believers are for the new independent church and 29 per cent are against, while the rest are undecided, a recent poll found.
‘Without an independent church, there won’t be an independent Ukraine. Moscow knows this well’