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9 months into the war, Moscow-backed churches in Ukraine get in trouble

by Alexander Query November 29, 2022 8:11 PM 5 min read
A Security Service (SBU) serviceman stands in front of the entrance of Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery in Kyiv on Nov. 22, 2022. (Getty Images)
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Ukraine has two main orthodox churches, and the one run by Moscow is having a hard time.

Starting from Nov. 22, Ukraine's law enforcement has raided several premises of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).

The latest search occurred on Nov. 28 in western Ukraine.

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) alleged that the church was at the heart of "subversive activities by Russian special services."

The searches also took place in the 29 hectares maze of the Moscow Patriarchate-controlled Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, located in the heart of Kyiv.

The SBU officers looked for sabotage groups, foreign citizens, or illegal weapons, as well as to prevent the use of facilities as "centers of the Russian world," a Russian propaganda term used to describe the country's fictitious influence sphere.

Despite the UOC-MP's official statement declaring "independence" from the Russian Orthodox Church in May and "condemning the war," the church's agenda remains intertwined with its Moscow overlords, and they officially remain subordinated to the Russian church in the hierarchy of the Orthodox world.

The Kremlin explicitly said the move was "a war on the Russian Orthodox Church."

The church has long been the object of scrutiny by government officials due to its ambiguous links with Moscow, now, it looks like law enforcement is making a move.

Representatives of the UOC-MP did not answer the Kyiv Independent's request for comment at the time of the publication.

One country, two churches

Since the country's independence, Ukraine has had more than one Orthodox church, the largest of them being the Russian Orthodox Church, under its local UOC-MP brand.

The Russian Orthodox Church has 38,000 parishes. As of 2020, a third of them were in Ukraine.

According to Metropolitan Epiphanius, the leader of Kyiv's Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as of January 2020, 7,097 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine were subordinate to the Kyiv-controlled Church, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate controlled an astonishing 12,410 parishes.

The full-scale invasion hardened the stance of Ukrainians toward the UOC-MP.

Patriarch Kirill, head of Russia's church and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has openly supported his country's war against Ukraine.

"We believe (a Russian soldier’s) sacrifice washes away all of that person's sins," Kirill said, blessing Russians to die in Ukraine for Putin's land grab.

An opinion poll in April 2022 by Rating showed that 74% of Ukrainians wanted the UOC-MP to cut its ties with Russia, and 51% wanted the church banned.

According to the poll, only 20% of Ukrainians said the state shouldn't take action against the Moscow Patriarchate.

On May 27, the UOC-MP convened a special council condemning "war as a violation of God's commandment 'Thou shalt not kill!'"

The council expressed "condolences to all those who suffered in the war" without explicitly blaming Russia.

Destruction, isolation, and controversy in frontline monastery of Sviatohirsk

The UOC-MP also formally "disagreed" with the position of Kirill about the war, declaring "independence" but not "autocephaly," actual independence according to Orthodox tradition.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine was skeptical about the move, calling it "window-dressing."

Metropolitan Hilarion, another key figure of the Russian Orthodox Church, said the announcement did not change the UOC-MP's status in the Russian church.

On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church took it seriously enough to retaliate by annexing three dioceses in Russian-occupied Crimea from the UOC-MP to create a Metropolitanate of Crimea on June 7.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine also targets properties currently controlled by the UOC-MP as it seeks to establish its own rival monastery in the UOC-MP-controlled Pechersk Lavra.

On May 24, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine asked the government permission to take over "one of the churches (...) and some of its premises for use in worship and monastic activities" on the grounds of the Pechersk Lavra.

FSB and Russian orthodoxy

The Russian church has a longstanding connection to the Kremlin.

Patriarch Kirill was sanctioned by the U.K. in June for backing the war. In September, he came under U.S. sanctions for the same reason.

Kirill, whose actual name is Vladimir Gundyayev, has evaded European sanctions so far due to Hungary's insistence.

Kirill told his followers on Sept. 26 that Russians fighting in Ukraine were doing a "heroic deed" by fighting in Ukraine and "blessed" the war effort.

There has been a long-time suspicion that Kirill had links to the KGB. The suspicion often extends to the whole of the Russian Orthodox Church and its affiliates, according to Yehor Bozhok, the former head of the Foreign Intelligence Service between 2017-2019.

"The Russian Orthodox Church is 99% controlled by the special services of the Russian Federation," Bozhok told the news agency Ukrinform in January 2019.

Russian asset

Meanwhile, Ukraine's authorities began keeping an eye on the Russian Orthodox Church's Ukrainian branch, which controls, among other things, the country's key religious sites – Kyiv Pechersk Lavka, Sviatohirsk Lavra in Donetsk Oblast, and the Pochayiv Lavra in western Ukraine.

A believers' prayer for "Mother Rus" shared on social media on Nov. 12 raised doubts about the church's stance.

"Propaganda assertions praising the 'Russian world' were expressed during the liturgy," the Security Service said.

The prayer led the Security Service to raid Kyiv Pechersk Lavra on Nov. 22.

After also searching the territory of the Chernivtsi and Bukovyna Diocese of the UOC-MP on Nov. 25, the SBU said it found documents confirming that its leaders have Russian citizenship and a trove of Russian propaganda.

"The Security Service found warehouses with batches of pro-Kremlin literature that praises the aggressor country and calls for supporting the occupiers," the SBU said.

"In addition, during the inspection of computers of the diocese's leadership, photocopies of the identity cards of Russians who took part in hostilities against the Ukrainian troops were found."

The propaganda allegedly included Russian manuals on conducting services after Russia began its full-scale invasion. The Prosecutor General’'s Office opened criminal proceedings for treason.

The SBU's ongoing investigation reported findings that had shed light on the troubling links between the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Russia's secret services.

In March, the Ukrainian parliament introduced new laws on collaboration, aiding and abetting an aggressor state that could be applied against the church.

On Nov. 23, the UOC-MP released a statement calling the accusations of collaboration between their clergy and Russia "unproven and groundless."

Speaking of priests who continue working in Russian-occupied territories, Moscow's church said they are "real heroes of the Ukrainian people."

"Those bishops and priests who have remained in the occupied territories of Ukraine and continue to perform their pastoral ministry are not collaborators," the UOC-MP said.

The UOC-MP also asked the investigation to "be impartial and not accompanied by unsubstantiated accusations."

"Once again, we respectfully urge you not to start an internal war, but to all unite to survive and defeat the evil that is before us," the UOC-MP wrote in its statement, not mentioning the evil by name.

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