Ukraine’s SBU security service and police have raided a 1,000-year-old Orthodox Christian monastery in Kyiv and as part of operations to counter suspected “subversive activities by Russian special services”.

Located south of the city centre, the sprawling Kyiv Pechersk Lavra complex – or Kyiv Monastery of the Caves – is the headquarters of the Russian-backed wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox church that falls under the Moscow patriarchate, as well as being a Ukrainian cultural treasure and a Unesco World Heritage site.

The Russian Orthodox church, whose head, Patriarch Kirill, has strongly supported Moscow’s military actions in Ukraine, condemned Tuesday’s raid as an “act of intimidation”.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said in a statement: “These measures are being taken … as part of the systemic work of the SBU to counter the destructive activities of Russian special services in Ukraine.”

It said the search was aimed at preventing the use of the cave monastery as “the centre of the Russian world” and carried out to look into suspicions “about the use of the premises … for sheltering sabotage and reconnaissance groups, foreign citizens, weapons storage”.

The “Russian world” concept is at the centre of Vladimir Putin’s new foreign policy doctrine that aims to protect Russia’s language, culture and religion. It has been used by conservative ideologues to justify intervention abroad.

The SBU did not give details about the outcome of Tuesday’s raid. Armed officers were seen carrying out ID checks and searching the bags of worshippers before letting them inside.

On Tuesday, the SBU, police and National Guard also searched two other monasteries and the headquarters of the Moscow patriarchate’s diocese in western Ukraine, the SBU’s branch in the Rivne region said in a statement posted on Facebook.

Kyiv monastery
The SBU said the search was aimed at preventing the use of the cave monastery as ‘the centre of the Russian world’. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

The raid will further sour already tense relations between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians. The Kremlin denounced the searches as the latest chapter in Kyiv’s “war” against the Russian church.

“Ukraine has long been at war with the Russian Orthodox church,” the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters. “We could see this as yet another link in the chain of these military actions against Russian Orthodoxy.”

Vladimir Legoida, a spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox church, said: “Like many other cases of persecution of believers in Ukraine since 2014, this act of intimidation of believers is almost certain to go unnoticed by those who call themselves the international human rights community.”

The war has sharpened the split between Ukraine and Russia’s Orthodox churches and intensified a long-running feud over religious allegiance. The Ukrainian Orthodox church formally split from under Moscow’s leadership three years ago, with Russia losing multiple Ukrainian parishes, but many historic churches and monasteries have remained loyal in religious practice and political allegiance to Russia.

Last Friday, the SBU said it had charged a senior clergyman from the western Vinnytsia region with attempting to distribute leaflets justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In May, the Ukrainian Orthodox church of the Moscow patriarchate ended its ties with the Russian church over the latter’s support for what Moscow calls its “special military operation”, instead of a war of aggression.

A 2020 survey by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Centre found that 34% of Ukrainians identified as members of the main Orthodox church of Ukraine, while 14% were members of Ukraine’s Moscow patriarchate church.

In 2019, Ukraine was given permission by the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide to form a church independent of Moscow, largely ending centuries of religious ties between the two countries.

Early in November, the Orthodox church of Ukraine said it would allow its congregations for the first time to celebrate Christmas on 25 December, in a move away from Russia and towards the west – for centuries Ukrainians have celebrated Christmas on 7 January, the date on which Jesus was born according to the Julian calendar.

The move to 25 December was seen as part of a bigger national process of dismantling the symbols of Russia, the Soviet Union and communism that took off in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and kickstarted a pro-Moscow uprising in the eastern Donbas region.

AFP and Reuters contributed to this report

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