Ukraine focuses suspicions on the Orthodox clergy with searches – KGET 17

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — An investigation into a centuries-old monastery complex in the Ukrainian capital and other religious sites has underscored Ukrainian authorities’ suspicions about some Orthodox Christian priests they consider loyal to Russia despite Moscow’s nine-month war against the country.

The search by security services and police at the Pechersk Lavra monastery, one of the most revered Orthodox sites in Kyiv, was unusual, but it did not happen in isolation.

Ukraine’s counterintelligence and counterterrorism service reported Wednesday that its agents had searched a total of more than 350 church buildings – including sites in another monastery and a diocese in the Rivne region, 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of Kiev.

And the service, known by its Ukrainian initials SBU, accused the bishop of another diocese of pro-Moscow activities last week after searching church premises and finding materials allegedly justifying the Russian invasion.

The SBU said the effort was part of its “systematic work to suppress the subversive activities of Russian special services in Ukraine.”

Orthodox Christians are the largest religious population in Ukraine. But they are divided along lines that reflect political tensions over Ukraine’s defense of its independence and its Western orientation amid Russia’s continued claims to political and spiritual hegemony in the region — a concept sometimes referred to as the “Russian world.”

Many Orthodox leaders spoke vehemently in favor of Ukrainian independence and condemned the Russian invasion. But recent searches show authorities suspect sites like the Pechersk Lavra — a UNESCO World Heritage Site revered as the region’s cradle of Orthodox monasticism — to be hotbeds of pro-Russian sentiment and activity.

Ukrainian authorities investigated some priests earlier in the war, but so far have been mostly respectful, said Archimandrite Kiril Hovorun, a professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at Sankt Ignatios College, Stockholm University College.

That respect has now waned because many Ukrainians believe church officials should be “equal before the law like the rest of us,” said Hovorun, an Orthodox priest and native of Ukraine.

“Some key metropolitans of the Ukrainian Church were quite famous and notorious for their public support of the ideology of the ‘Russian world,'” he said. “It’s not a secret.”

The SBU said on Wednesday that in this week’s operations, more than 50 people underwent in-depth “counterintelligence interviews, including the use of polygraphs.” They are said to have included some Russians and other foreigners, including some without valid passports.

It is also said that she discovered “pro-Russian literature, which is used during studies in seminaries and parochial schools, including for the propaganda of the ‘Russian world’.”

In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukrainian authorities of “waging a war against the Russian Orthodox Church.”

But the Reverend Mykola Danilevich, who has often served as a spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, disputed Peskov’s characterization on the social media site Telegram, arguing that the UPC was not Russian. The UOC declared independence from Moscow in May.

“UPC is the same ‘Russian Church’ as ​​Kherson is a ‘subject’ of the Russian Federation,” he wrote, referring to the city liberated by Ukrainian troops after it was illegally annexed by Russia.

The SBU operation followed a November 12 service at the Pechersk Lavra complex where a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was filmed speaking about the “awakening” of Russia. Songs glorifying the “Russian world” were sung, it is reported.

“Those who, in the conditions of the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine, are waiting for the ‘awakening of mother Russia’ should understand that this harms the security and interests of Ukraine and our citizens. And we will not allow such manifestations,” said SBU head Vasyl Maliuk.

Separately, the SBU said last week that it had uncovered the “subversive activities” of Metropolitan Yonatan of the Diocese of Tulchin and Bratslav in western Ukraine.

The service alleged that he kept printed materials justifying the invasion of Russia in his church and planned to distribute them. The material states that the material calls for “taking away state power and changing the borders of our country”.

Metropolitan Jonathan denied the accusations, saying that they “do not represent the truth”.

The SBU announced on its Facebook page that it follows legal procedures. It states that it “adheres to the principle of impartiality towards the activities of any religious faith and respects the right of every citizen to freedom of secularism and religion”.

The term “Russian world” serves as a focal point in the cultural war that underlies the war. It portrays Moscow as the protector and cultivator of a common, millennia-old Orthodox Christian culture across Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has justified the war as part of a “metaphysical struggle,” with Russia acting to protect Ukraine from Western liberal encroachment, manifested in things like gay pride parades.

Orthodoxy in Ukraine is divided.

The historical branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been officially loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church since the 17th century. But after breakaway groups organized under the name Orthodox Church of Ukraine, in 2019 they were recognized as an independent church by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian church vehemently rejects the move as illegitimate.

And three months after the start of the war, the part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that remained loyal to Moscow then declared its own independence.

But the relationship of that church towards Moscow remains ambiguous.

“Its status is now unclear,” added John Burgess, author of “Holy Russia: The Revival of Orthodoxy in the New Russia” and a professor at Pittsburgh Seminary.

“There is some division within that church,” with priests and other leaders “very vocally pro-Moscow,” he said. But in other dioceses, priests no longer mention Cyril by name in public prayers – a ritually strong affront in the Orthodox tradition, where such prayers are routine as an expression of church unity.

The search for Ukrainians in the Pechersk Lavra is sensitive. Dating back to the 11th century, it includes a labyrinth of caves, tombs of saints and baroque churches, according to UNESCO.

“From the point of view of American pluralism, you’d say, ‘Really? You’d storm into a church because somebody sang a song?”’ Burgess said. “But it’s time for war. There is so much anger towards Russia and so much anger towards anything that seems to be related to Russia. We will see if the security forces are really up to something.”


Smith reported from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. AP reporter Inna Varenytsia from Kyiv contributed.


Associated Press reporting on religion is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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