Ukraine’s Culture Ministry will recommend terminating the Russian-backed church's lease on part of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, Ukraine's most important Orthodox monastery, Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said on Dec. 27.
The Russian-controlled church's lease on this part of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra - called the Upper Lavra - is expiring on Jan. 1.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, an affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church, is also leasing another part of the monastery, the Lower Lavra, for an indefinite period. However, the Ukrainian authorities are currently checking the legality of its lease on the Lower Lavra as well.
Apart from the Moscow Patriarchate, the premises of the Lavra are also used by a museum.
On Dec. 2, the Ukrainian government registered a legal entity supposed to manage the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra on behalf of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is competing with the Russian-backed church. Currently the legal entity does not control any buildings of the Lavra but its registration triggered speculation that a part or all of the monastery may be transferred to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
On Dec. 2, President Volodymyr Zelensky also imposed sanctions against Pavlo Lebid, head of the Russian-affiliated church's Kyiv Pechersk Lavra and an ex-lawmaker from the pro-Russian Party of Regions.
Lebid has held consistent pro-Russian views and called for "unity" with Russia. He has also stated that "Crimea has never been Ukrainian."
In November social media users shared a video in which a Moscow Patriarchate priest and parishioners at one of the Lavra's churches were singing a prayer for "Mother Russia." The priest was later suspended by the Moscow-affiliated church.
Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court on Dec. 27 recognized a law that seeks to change the Moscow-backed church's name as constitutional.
The law, which was passed in 2018, seeks to make the Russian-controlled church indicate its subordination to Russia in its name in an effort to ensure that the general public knows its affiliation. Currently the organization is officially called "the Ukrainian Orthodox Church" without a formal reference to Russia.
The Moscow-affiliated church said on Dec. 27 it would not comply with the renaming law because it claims that it's not controlled by Russia.
In May, the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian church said it would have “full independence” from the Russian Orthodox Church, reacting to criticism of Russian-backed church leaders amid the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian branch also said that it “condemns the war” and “disagrees with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow on the war in Ukraine.”
However, skeptics said it was just a ploy to appease critics since the Ukrainian branch effectively remained part of the Russian church and did not declare “autocephaly” – the Orthodox term for genuine independence.
Under Orthodox rules, only one independent - or "autocephalous" - church can exist in a specific country. The Russian-backed church's full independence under Orthodox rules would imply its merger with the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine but the Moscow-affiliated church has opposed such a unification.
Recently, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Ukrainian branch has faced a backlash.
Zelensky signed a decree on Dec. 2 to approve a proposal by the National Security and Defense Council to ban the Russian-backed Ukrainian church.
The National Security and Defense Council instructed the Cabinet on Dec. 1 to draft a bill on such a ban. The bill is expected to be considered by the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.
Since November, Ukraine has conducted nationwide raids on religious sites that belong to the Russian-controlled church – during which authorities say they have so far found Russian passports, anti-Ukrainian propaganda, and a stolen collection of icons. Searches have also taken place at the Moscow Patriarchate-controlled Kyiv Pechersk Lavra.