Less than a week before the unifying Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), Ukraine is experiencing a religious kerfuffle. And in its center are representatives of the UOC’s Moscow Patriarchate, a church that springs from Russian Orthodox Church and that until just a few months ago was considered the only canonical diocese in Ukraine.
The unification council is set to take place on December 15 at the St. Sophia Cathedral, which is expected to become the main church in Ukraine once the UOC fully receives its independence.
Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO
Hromadske takes a look at how these processes are unfolding in certain religious institutions and how Moscow Patriarchate priests have been coming to terms with all the recent developments in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Pochayiv Lavra is a big church complex in Ukraine’s western Ternopil region and home to a male monastery, among other institutions. It is considered the second holiest place in Ukraine after the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. It is also where the current head of the UOC Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Onufriy, used to serve back in 1988-1990.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the independent Ukraine, it was decided in religious circles that Pochayiv Lavra would come under the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1996, the Moscow Patriarchate even went as far as declaring the Lavra a stavropegic monastery and inso an autonomous and a very important church entity within the patriarchate.
“Churches do not belong to the state,” Klyment, the head of the information department of the Moscow Patriarchate, told Hromadske during an interview.
However, some buildings of the Pochayiv Lavra do belong to the Ukrainian government, specifically to the Ministry of Culture. Those are the Assumption Cathedral, the Trinity Cathedral, the monastic cells, the bell tower, the bishop’s house and the gate housing. Since 2001, these buildings have belonged to the Kremenets-Pochayiv State Historical and Cultural Reserve, which is under the Ministry of Culture’s jurisdiction. And the priests are just using the buildings.
But there were a series of fights over these buildings starting in 2003. First, former president Viktor Yanukovych signed a decree to eliminate these six buildings from the reserve in favor of the Moscow Patriarchate. But this decree was never fulfilled and the culture ministry continues to manage and look after the Pochayiv Lavra.
Then there is the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra itself. On November 30, Ukrainian Security Service or SBU searched the house of Metropolitan Pavlo, the head of the Lavra. He is accused of inciting sectarian strife. Pavlo himself believes that it was because of an interview where he supposedly offended the current head of the Kyiv Patriarchate Filaret. Beside Pavlo’s house, the Lavra’s bookkeeping department was also searched.
Photo: EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
When the Ministry of Culture conducted their search at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra at the end of November, they explained that they were “checking the state of preservation and presence of cultural property that, along with fixed landmarks, was handed over to the use of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra between 1986 and 2000s.” When Hromadske asked Yulia Datsenko, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Culture, what property was being implied, she suggested asking the law enforcement agencies themselves. The SBU spokesperson Olena Hitlyanska in turn wrote on Facebook that it’s an investigation secret and all further questions should be referred to the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine.
Other proceedings against the UOC’s Moscow Patriarchate representatives took place too. For example, on December 5, 20 priests from Rivne and Sarny diocese were summoned for questioning by the SBU. While on December 3, dioceses in Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region were searched.
The SBU has not given clear comments with regards to these investigative actions. They explain, however, that the investigation is being conducted according to a criminal proceeding opened by the Kyiv region’s prosecutor’s office on the count of violating the citizens’ equality on the basis of faith. The law enforcement bodies also mentioned the act of spreading leaflets and brochures that contained “propaganda of religious intolerance, offence of citizens’ feelings and incitement of sectarian strife.”
But there were carrots too. On December 2, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko awarded two Moscow Patriarchate metropolitans with Orders of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, an award given for distinguished services to the Ukrainian state and nation. These metropolitans showed their favor for a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Anatoly of the Sarny and Polissya diocese signed a memorandum on a united Ukrainian Orthodox Church back in 2014, while Metropolitan Sofroniy of Cherkasy expressed his support of autocephaly and intention to take part in the upcoming council on numerous occasions.