Dispute over the Kyiv Lavra and Enthronement in Cyprus (link)
By Peter Anderson
January 9, 2023
On January 7, the feast of the Nativity on the Julian calendar, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), headed by Metropolitan Epifany, celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the Dormition (Assumption) Cathedral of the historic Kyiv Pechersk (Caves) Lavra. (link)
It was the first religious service ever conducted by the OCU in the Lavra. Previously, at least since 1988, all religious services had been conducted only by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). The entire Christmas service can be watched on the following video: (link). The text of the address of Metropolitan Epifany can be read at (link).
Some of the points made by Metropolitan Epifany in his address are as follows: He notes that “more than two decades ago, this shrine [the Dormition Cathedral] was restored from ruins as a gift to the Ukrainian people for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.”
He states that according to tradition, exactly 950 years ago, the Mother of God personally sent builders from Constantinople to Kyiv to construct this cathedral.
Epifany renews the “spiritual connection…between the Church of Rus’-Ukraine and the Mother Church of Constantinople and the fullness of Orthodoxy today….”
He expresses the belief that the spirit of Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) [primate of the UOC, 1992 – 2014] “who condemned the ‘political Orthodoxy’ planted from the north and took real steps towards reconciliation between Orthodox and overcoming church divisions,” rejoices in today’s service.
He appeals to the brothers [monks] of the Lavra to free themselves from Moscow’s rule and to turn a new page of devotion to the “one Church of Christ” and “the Ukrainian people.”
He expresses the conviction that “we owe the present joyful event to the courage of the Ukrainian army, to our newest heroes.”
The entire service, including the Ukrainian dress of the choir, stressed the Ukrainian language and culture. There were special prayers for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
It is important to note that the Lavra complex is owned by the Ukrainian government, and the government’s permission to the OCU to use the Lavra was limited to one location on one day — the Dormition Cathedral on January 7, 2023.
It appears likely that if the OCU wishes to use the Dormition Cathedral in the future, it will be necessary to apply to the Ukrainian government for each of those occasions.
The government body responsible for the Lavra is the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra National Preserve, which is part of the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. (link)
The Ministry is currently headed by Oleksandr Tkachenko. The entire Lavra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To understand the current dispute relating to the Lavra, it is helpful to have some knowledge of the various parts of the Lavra.
The Lavra covers 20 hectares and includes over 100 structures. Good maps showing the structures of the Lavra can be found at (link) (click on the map to enlarge it) and (link).
It is extremely important to understand the difference between the “Upper Lavra” and the “Lower Lavra.”
The Upper Lavra is essentially a very large museum complex.
It includes museums covering such subjects as the “book and printing,” “theater and cinema,” “folk decorative art,” “historical treasures,” “microminiatures,” and “Lavra history.”
The museum complex in the Upper Lavra also includes the Dormition Cathedral and the Refectory (Trapeza) Church of Saint Anthony and Theodosius.
The Lower Lavra consists primarily of the active monastery (over 100 monks), the historic “near” and “far” caves, the Kyiv Theological Academy and Seminary (the most important academic institution of the UOC), three hotel buildings for pilgrims, and the administrative headquarters of the entire UOC.
There are approximately 12 churches in the entire Lavra.
The Dormition Cathedral is the most famous.
Over the course of over 900 years, it has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.
In 1941 it was completely destroyed by a great explosion and remained in ruins for almost six decades.
In 1995, Ukrainian President Kuchma decreed that the Cathedral should be built on site with a completion date by Ukrainian Independence Day 2000.
The accelerated construction schedule was met, and the newly-constructed Cathedral was dedicated in 2000. (link)
Although Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) laid the foundation stone of the new cathedral and later dedicated it, the construction of the cathedral was the work of the government and was financed by it.
The Refectory and its Church are not historic structures, but were constructed in the 1890s.
The Refectory Church is noted for its large dome and its Art Nouveau frescos.
The interior of the Church is the work of artist Alexey Shchusev (1873-1947). (link)
Ironically, Shchusev later became the designer of the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square and was awarded the Stalin Prize on four occasions.
The UOC [Note: the Church linked most closely to Moscow] has held two leases relating to its use of property in the Lavra.
With respect to the Upper Lavra, it has held a lease that has allowed the UOC to use the Dormition Cathedral and Refectory Church for religious services.
Apparently, the UOC must pay a fee for each hour that one of those churches is used for religious services.
As part of the museum complex, those churches have also been visited by millions of tourists over the years.
The lease with respect to the two churches ran until the end of 2022.
The Ministry of Culture has now announced its intention not to extend this lease. (link)
On January 6, Metropolitan Pavel (Lebed), governor of the monastery at the Lavra, sent a letter to Minister of Culture Tkachenko protesting this decision. (link)
It appears that the Metropolitan’s primary argument is the Cabinet of Ministers last May issued a resolution extending state leases expiring during the period of martial law to after the end of such martial law.
However, such a resolution may not provide the UOC with much protection as the Cabinet has the power to amend this resolution at any time.
Viktor Yelensky, the new head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience, has stated that there is agreement that the churches should be used for prayer, but maintains that the UOC should not have a monopoly in this regard. (link)
My guess is that the final resolution will be that if either the OCU or the UOC wishes to use one of the churches in the Upper Lavra on specific occasions, it will need to apply to the National Preserve for such use.
The use of the Lower Lavra by the UOC is governed by a lease which was apparently signed in 2013 and which is for an indefinite term.
On January 8, it was reported that stated that an interdepartmental commission will meet next week to discuss how religious organizations use state property, in particular in the Lower Lavra. (link)
Tkachenko also stated that the government cannot transfer its property to religious organizations for long-term use free of charge. (link)
Personally, I would find it amazing if the government sought to evict the UOC monks from their monastery or to evict the theological academy and seminary from its building.
Rather, it is much more likely that the government will seek rent from the UOC for the use of certain state-owned buildings in the Lower Lavra.
Lastly, representatives of many of the Local Orthodox Churches were present for the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict. The list of the representatives can be read at (link).
The representatives included Metropolitan Emmanuel of Chalcedon (Ecumenical Patriarchate) and Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk (Moscow Patriarchate).
The primate of the Orthodox Church in America was also present.
[End Peter Anderson]
There are many, many facts about Orthodox Church life in Ukraine that are hard to verify right now — for obvious reasons.
Civil wars create waves of fog that make it hard for reporters to do their job — if one assumes journalists have some responsibility to attempt to test the fact claims of armies on both sides.
All of this is relevant to that New York Times story that ran the other day with this headline: “Clergymen or Spies? Churches Become Tools of War in Ukraine.”
Let me stress that this was an important story about an important topic. It would shocking if there were not divisions among Orthodox clergy and their parishes during a civil war.
Basically, this Times story is a press release built on evidence gathered by Ukrainian officials who want to shut down the historic Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which has for centuries had canonical ties to the Russian Orthodox Church.
That church has done everything it could — under Orthodox polity — to cut its Moscow ties, while waiting for some kind of intervention from the world’s Orthodox patriarchs.
On the other side, the United States, the European Union and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul have backed the creation of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU) — which is, no surprise, backed by the current government of Ukraine.
So, before we get to the central claims of the Times story, let’s pause and ask a rather important question: How many Orthodox parishes, and clergy, are there in Ukraine these days? Yes, it complicates matters that some have been destroyed, by forces on both sides, and some have been closed or seized. How many parishes have been shut down or seized, and by whom? How many parishes have split? These are the kinds of questions that are hard to answer during a civil war.
Here is some interesting material from a source on the left side of Orthodox life here in the United States, the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in New York City. The headline on this blog post: “Which Orthodox Church in Ukraine is the Largest?” It was written by Thomas Bremer, a retired professor in Eastern Church studies at Münster University, Germany. Let’s walk through some key info:
Regarding parishes, the Ukrainian authorities have very thorough statistics. Every religious community that wants to exist legally in Ukraine has to register … and to provide data regularly about numbers of parishes, clergy, training institutions, etc. We have these statistics for many years, enabling us to see the dynamics of the growth (or decline) of religious communities.
In other words, government officials are actively involved in some of these questions. Let’s move on.
… (L)et us try to look at the latest statistics (January 1, 2021). The UOC had 12,406 parishes, among them 239 inactive and 89 non-registered. The OCU had 7,188 parishes, among them 457 inactive and 328 non-registered. …
These numbers show that, when we look at the number of parishes, the UOC is by far larger. There are huge regional differences. In some districts (oblasts), one church can be ten times larger than the other (and vice versa).
In this context, the number of clergymen is also interesting. Both churches have far fewer clergy than parishes (the UOC 10,510 for 12,406 parishes; the OCU 4,572 for 7,188 parishes).
The war will have affected these numbers, of course. Churches on both sides are, literally, under fire.
Also note that these numbers do not address monasteries and the monks and sisters therein. That’s another controversial topic, since the new OCU is wants control of some or all of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the font of Slavic monasticism since its birth in 1051. At one point, state official Elena Bogdan — head of State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience — noted the low number of monks in OCU communities, in contrast with the growing number inside the UOC-linked Lavra. Why did the new church need the giant Lavra? Bogdan was recently sacked.
Let’s assume, at this point, that the historic UOC has between 10,000 and 12,000 priests, monks and sisters.
This brings us to the crucial material in the Times report, after a feature lede based on evidence of violent threats made by an abbot in heavily Russian Eastern Ukraine.
His was hardly an isolated case. In the past month, the authorities have arrested or publicly identified as suspects more than 30 clergymen and nuns of the Ukrainian arm of the Russian Orthodox Church.
To the Ukrainian security services, the Russian-aligned church, one of the country’s two major Orthodox churches, poses a uniquely subversive threat — a widely trusted institution that is not only an incubator of pro-Russia sentiment but is also infiltrated by priests, monks and nuns who have aided Russia in the war.
Recent months have brought a quick succession of searches of churches and monasteries, and decrees and laws restricting the activity of the Russian-aligned church, confusingly named the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s Supreme Court upheld a 2018 law that requires truthful naming of religious organizations if they are affiliated with a country at war with Ukraine — a law tailored to force the church to call itself Russian.
President Volodymyr Zelensky this month asked Parliament to ban any church that answers to Russia, though no details have been proposed yet, so it remains unclear how that would work. The Ukrainian authorities plan to revoke the Russian church’s lease on two revered houses of worship — the Holy Dormition Cathedral and the Refectory Church — in the Monastery of the Caves complex in Kyiv. …
The Times notes that Ukrainian officials insist that “religious freedom” has nothing to do with “espionage, sedition, sabotage or treason.”
What about the UOC’s condemnations of Vladimir Putin and the invasion, its calls for support of Ukrainian troops and its efforts to funnel resources to refugees, etc.? There are plenty of public statements and documents available with a few clicks of a mouse.
The Times story notes:
Early in December, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church called the accusations of collaboration between its clergy and Russia “unproven and groundless.”
The Russian-aligned church, which still represents millions of Ukrainians, insists that it cut ties with its Russian hierarchy at the onset of the war. The independent Ukrainian church calls that break insincere and flatly condemns its counterpart for not making a real break with Moscow.
The actual statements of the UOC synod are actually much more complex than that. Here is a sample of one statement responding to the crackdown on many of the historic church’s parishes and monasteries (auto-translated into English):
For more than 270 days, a full-scale war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine has been going on. From the first day of the invasion of Russian troops, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has condemned this war and has consistently advocated the preservation of the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Our believers, with God’s help and the prayers of their fellow believers, courageously defend their Motherland in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other military formations. We rejoice at the victories of our military, watching how life is being restored in the liberated cities and villages. At the same time, with deep pain, we continue to receive news of the deaths of our defenders and civilians. Eternal memory to all the victims of this terrible war!
OK, but what about the evidence gathered against some (hold that thought) of its clergy, especially in the Russia-dominated Eastern regions of Ukraine?
Let’s keep reading, including a bite of language that made it into the Times reporting:
Unfortunately, today some clergymen of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are being accused of collaborative activities. For our part, taking into account the various circumstances that have developed as a result of the military aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, we declare that these artificial accusations are unproven and unfounded. Those bishops and priests who remained in the occupied territory of Ukraine and continue to perform their pastoral service there are not collaborators. On the contrary, many of them are true heroes of the Ukrainian people. In the difficult circumstances that developed as a result of the war, they did not leave their flock. Risking their reputation, the clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are doing everything possible for our Ukrainian people to survive there,
Key word there — “many” — as in “many of them are true heroes of the Ukrainian people.” The implication, of course, is that some clergy are not “true heroes of the Ukrainian people.”
Still, the synod states its opposition to continuing attacks and raids on UOC churches.
But (here is the key) does the synod oppose investigation of traitors? Unfortunately, the translator program gets a bit vague here. I suspect that one or two key words have dropped out:
Unfortunately, some people have already faced serious charges. In this regard, we insist on the objectivity of the actions of law enforcement officers. The investigation must be impartial and not be accompanied by unsubstantiated accusations. Once again, we urge not to kindle an internal war, but for everyone to unite in order to survive and defeat the evil facing us. Only our common work without internal strife can stop the bloodshed.
My reading of that language is that the UOC synod knows there are problems with some of its clergy in some parts of Ukraine, but doesn’t want that turned into an open war against the historic church and its attempts to separate from Moscow. For example, the synod urged that UOC clergy still be allowed to serve as military chaplains for UOC believers who are in the Ukrainian military.
It would not be shocking to learn that the UOC has effectively lost control of some of its parishes in Russian-controlled territory, leading to all kinds of questionable actions by clergy with decades of personal and family ties to Russia.
There is strong material of that kind in the Times piece, based on evidence provided by state officials. Some of it is horrifying. But let’s look at some crucial language in one paragraph:
During the eight-month Russian occupation of Kherson city, Moscow’s forces cracked down on private charities in an effort to steer the population to Russian humanitarian aid programs, which required registration with occupation authorities. It was a policy of forcing dependence on Russia. When a priest nonetheless continued operating a soup kitchen, the Russian-aligned church excommunicated him.
Wait a minute. There is evidence that Metropolitan Onuphry and/or the UOC synod acted to excommunicate a priest for attempting to help Ukrainian refugees? Is there a document for that, some kind of factual reference other than that blunt claim of fact, with no attribution? Maybe that the action of a lower church official in territory controlled by Russian troops?
Does the accuracy of that kind of statement matter, when covering a civil war of this kind? At this point, does it matter to test the accuracy of information provided by authorities? Hard questions
I will end with this: Raise your hand if you are surprised that there are — What was that reference? — accusations of treason or other crimes against “more than 30 clergymen and nuns” in the historic UOC?
That would be 30-plus out of the 12,000 clergy and religious in that giant church? How many of those were in Russian-controlled sectors of Eastern Ukraine?
Obviously, it will be major news — validly so — if trials show that clergy under the control of the UOC hierarchy are guilty of these accusations. But allow me to note that it is hard, in a civil war, to control people, even priests, who are under fire in war zones.
It appears that bishops in the UOC synod know there are issues worth pursuing here. Perhaps the Times team could talk to some of the Orthodox leaders caught in between the Russian invaders and cultures in the West? If it is not possible to talk to them, it is certainly possible to report on their actual actions and public statements.
Civil wars are brutal. We could also hope, perhaps, for coverage of the hostile actions by some — repeat “some” — of the officials and churches supported by the United States, the European Union and current Ukrainian leaders. Sin has a way of affecting the actions of believers on both sides of civil wars.
One more time, let me reprint what I wrote on Facebook the day of Russia’s hostile invasion of Ukraine. This is still where I am, as an Orthodox layman who totally condemns Russia’s actions in this war:
I’m no Ukraine expert, obviously. During two visits to Kiev, I was able to talk with some historians, think-tank pros and journalists. I also was blessed to worship, twice, at the Lavra monastery of the Kievan Caves. Here is what I heard, in terms of concepts that European-Ukrainians and Russian-Eukrainians could agree on.
* Soviets treated Ukraine horribly. Bloody memories that remain vivid.
* Soviets crushed two different cultures into one nation, guaranteeing strife — common Soviet tactic (think Yugoslavia) to focus tensions away from Moscow.
* USA-Europe wanted NATO in Ukraine. Russia opposed this. Period. Always.
* Kiev is ultimate landmine issue. Why? Because of crucial role Kiev plays in Russian mind. St. Petersburg is culture, Moscow is power, Kiev is spiritual roots of Rus/Motherland.
Summary: EU-USA was arrogant enough to think they could – with money, culture and military tech – turn Eastern-Russian Ukrainians into Europeans. Will Putin be arrogant enough to think he can, with blood, turn Western-European Ukrainians into Russians?
Brothers killing brothers. Pray for negotiations.