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Ukraine raids 1,000 year old Russia-backed Kyiv monastery

SBU intelligence service says the raid was to investigate suspicions of Russia using the complex for sabotage and to store weapons.

Published On 23 Nov 2022

Ukraine’s security service and police have raided a 1,000-year-old Orthodox Christian monastery in Kyiv to counter suspected “subversive activities by Russian special services”.

The sprawling Kyiv Pechersk Lavra complex – or Kyiv Monastery of the Caves – is a Ukrainian cultural treasure and its cathedral, churches and other buildings are a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site.

Overlooking the right bank of the Dnieper River, it is also the headquarters of the Russian-backed wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and falls under the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Ukrainian counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism service said the search was part of its “systematic work to counter the subversive activities of the Russian special services in Ukraine”.

The statement from the intelligence service, known as the SBU for its initials in Ukrainian, said the operation was aimed at preventing the use of the monastery as “the centre of the Russian world” and carried out to look into suspicions “about the use of the premises … for sheltering sabotage and reconnaissance groups, foreign citizens, [and] weapons storage”. It said another site was also being searched in the Rivne region, 240 kilometres (150 miles) west of the capital.

a grouo of Orthodox Christian priests in black robes and with long grey beards stand outside the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery. Ukrainian intelligence service agents and police are also in the pictue, One wearing fatigues is standing with back to the camera in the foreground
Orthodox priests are shown speaking to Ukrainian law enforcement officers. The raid followed reports of a sermon at a recent service where the priest spoke favourably of Russia [Press Service of the State Security Service of Ukraine via Reuters]

The “Russian world” concept is at the centre of President Vladimir Putin’s new foreign policy doctrine, which aims to protect Russia’s language, culture and religion. It has been used by conservative ideologues to justify intervention abroad.

The SBU did not elaborate on the outcome of the operation.

War deepens split

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

He described the search “as another link in the chain of these aggressive actions against Russian Orthodoxy”.

Moscow-based church authorities have repeatedly voiced support for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, has described the war as a “metaphysical struggle” between Moscow and the West. He condemned Tuesday’s search as “an act of intimidation”.

The raid will further strain already tense relations between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians.

“Like many other cases of persecution of believers in Ukraine since 2014, this act of intimidation of believers is almost certain to go unnoticed by those who call themselves the international human rights community,” said Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church.

The SBU operation follows a November 12 service at the Pechersk Lavra complex where a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was filmed talking about the “awakening” of Russia.

The SBU said it was “looking into the details of the incident that happened in one of the temples of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – where songs praising the ‘Russian world’ were sung”.

An aerial view of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra with its golden domes poking through mist
The thousand-year-old Kyiv Pechersk Lavra is a World Heritage site and one of the most famous sites in the Ukrainian capital [File: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]

Last Friday, the SBU said it had charged a senior clergyman from the western Vinnytsia region with attempting to distribute leaflets justifying Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

In May, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate ended its ties with the Russian Church over the latter’s support for what Moscow calls a “special military operation”.

Ukraine says the full-scale invasion was an unprovoked war of aggression.

A 2020 survey by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Centre found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the main Orthodox Church of Ukraine, while 14 percent were members of Ukraine’s Moscow Patriarchate Church.

In 2019, Ukraine was given permission by the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide to form a church independent of Moscow, largely ending centuries of religious ties between the two countries.

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