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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Monastery of the caves has symbolic importance for Russians and Ukrainians

A priest at the entrance to Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.

By Marc Santora and Ivan Nechepurenko

Ukrainian security officers raided a centuries-old Orthodox Christian monastery complex in Kyiv on Tuesday, saying they wanted to prevent its use as a center for pro-Russian, subversive activities. The agents scoured the sprawling complex aboveground looking for Russian saboteurs among the clerics and weapons amid the holy relics, even as pilgrims prayed in caves below where the monks are buried. Moscow condemned the move as an attack on the Russian Orthodox Church.

It was unclear if any arrests were made or illegal activity discovered, but the publicly announced search appeared designed to send a clear message: Priests who support the Kremlin’s goal of a “Russian world” that includes Ukraine will be found and perhaps punished.

The Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves, is a huge complex that is considered one of the holiest Christian sites for both Russians and Ukrainians. It is the headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which until recently had been subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow,

The search was a vivid demonstration of the depth of mistrust toward the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which long pledged its loyalty to the Moscow Patriarch. After Russia’s invasion in February, the Ukrainian church’s leadership made a formal break, but government officials have spoken openly about suspicions that some clergy members are still loyal to Moscow.

Officers of Ukraine’s state security service said in a statement that, together with the police and national guard, it carried out “counterintelligence” activities in the monastery intended to “counter the subversive activities of the Russian special services in Ukraine.”

Sprawling along the Dnieper River in central Kyiv, the complex encompasses ancient churches, administrative buildings and caves where many revered monks and saints are buried. It is considered the birthplace of monastic life in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The Rev. Hieromonk Ioan, a member of the Kyiv monastery, said that the clergy there simply wanted to pray in peace. He said that they were not loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate but did not shy away from the monastery’s close historic ties with Russia.

“We have certain relations with Russia, and it’s painful for us what is going on now,” he said in an interview outside the monastery after the raid. “Time will show how it will be in the future.

“The most important is that the war is over. We are praying for that,” he said. “For the guilty to be punished and for us to live in peace and not to be afraid of tomorrow.”

Ukrainian security officials said in a separate statement that they had also raided two other monasteries as well as the headquarters for a local diocese, all in western Ukraine.

The Ukrainian church has been slowly asserting itself since the country’s independence in 1991. It received formal autonomous status within the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2019. Since the war started, hundreds of churches have switched allegiance from the Moscow patriarchate to the Kyiv-based church.

Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, is a prominent supporter of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and has characterized the war as a just defense of Russian nationalism and a crusade against the spread of liberal ideologies. Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, has urged Kirill not to “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy” and instead to work for peace.

Tuesday’s raid prompted a harsh reaction in Russia, with the Kremlin characterizing the move as further proof that Ukraine is “at war with the Russian Orthodox Church.”

“This can be regarded as another link in the chain of military actions against the Russian Orthodoxy,” said Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson.

Vladimir Legoyda, the spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church, called the raid “an act of intimidation” against the only remaining institution “where people both in Russia and Ukraine sincerely pray for peace.”

Ukrainian security services said they had already arrested more than 30 Ukrainian priests working as Russian agents over the course of the war.

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