KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s security services on Tuesday raided one of the holiest sites for Orthodox Christians, saying they were scouring a 1,000-year-old monastery in the heart of Kyiv looking for Russian vandals among the clergy and weapons amid the ruins, even at the same time. Pilgrims prayed in the caves below.
The hunt for Russian spies in the sprawling Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, was living proof of the depth of mistrust in Ukraine toward a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church that had followed the leaders in Moscow until this year, and it was. Many Ukrainians suspect them of being a fifth column allied with the Kremlin. Millions of Ukrainians belong to another branch, independent of Moscow.
As of last month, officials said, 33 priests had been arrested for aiding Russia since its invasion in February, most of them accused of gathering intelligence and supplying it to Moscow’s forces.
It was not clear if anyone was arrested or illegal activity detected on Tuesday, but security services have warned that churches provide an ideal hiding place for those looking to tear Ukraine apart from the inside.
The Kremlin condemned the raid, calling it evidence that Kyiv was “at war with the Russian Orthodox Church”. Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, called the move an “act of intimidation” against the only remaining institution “where people in both Russia and Ukraine sincerely pray for peace”.
The raid came as the Russian army pounded cities and towns in southern and eastern Ukraine with heavy artillery fire, as it tried to regroup after recent losses of territory and troops. As Kremlin forces suffer setbacks on the battlefield, and prepare for a possible slowdown in fighting over the winter, they appear to have settled on a strategy of making Ukraine unlivable for those who have not already fled the country.
Ukrainian officials said eight people were killed in the strikes on Tuesday. The governor of Zaporizhev region said a shell hit a relief center in a school on Tuesday, killing a social worker and wounding two women. The governor, Oleksandr Starukh, said in a post on the social messaging app Telegram that people lining up at the relief center left spaces between them as a security precaution, which prevented the death toll from rising.
Also on Tuesday, officials in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, said Ukraine had launched a drone attack on the port of Sevastopol, home to Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet, but it was not clear if there was serious damage. Ukraine has carried out several offensives far from the front lines in Crimea, an important staging and supply area for Russia’s military operations in the south.
Ukraine has also set its sights on reclaiming the Kinburn Spit, a strategically vital peninsula at the mouth of the Dnipro River where it meets the Black Sea. Control of the peninsula allows Russia to project its power deep into the Black Sea, guarding the approaches to ports there and protecting its forces in Crimea. If Ukraine captured Kinburn, it would put key Russian supply lines running north from Crimea into an easy array of Ukrainian weapons systems.
At the Monastery of the Caves, soldiers with rifles combed the compound on Tuesday and questioned the priests. In the underground, candlelit labyrinth, visitors kiss holy relics and pray among the centuries-old mummified remains of monks, preserved in glass cases. None of the visitors wanted to comment on the plot going on above.
Ukraine’s security service, known as the State Security Department, said in a statement that it was investigating allegations that church property was used to “hide sabotage and intelligence groups, foreign citizens and stockpiling weapons”. Agents also raided Koretsky Holy Trinity Monastery and Sarny-Polissia Eparchy in the Rivne region of western Ukraine. Officials did not announce any arrests or other results of the operation.
The Monastery of the Caves, considered the cradle of Orthodoxy for both Russians and Ukrainians, was caught up in a growing conflict within the Church.
In Orthodox Christianity, the national churches enjoy a high degree of autonomy, with the patriarch in Istanbul—whom the church still calls Constantinople—the first among equals. But the Moscow Patriarchate has often portrayed itself as the true seat of Orthodoxy, noting that Muslim Turks have ruled Istanbul since 1453.
In Ukraine, where most people identify as Orthodox Christians, for centuries the Church has not been independent and operates under Moscow’s leadership. But the Ukrainian Church has asserted itself since the country’s independence in 1991, a process accelerated by conflicts between the two countries, and the close alliance between Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, and President Vladimir Putin. Russia.
In 2019, the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized a Ukrainian church independent of Moscow, a move that angered Russian political and ecclesiastical leaders, and led to division within Ukraine. While many local churches joined the newly independent branch of the Church, others remained within the Church still responding to Moscow – and still in control of the Monastery of the Caves.
Kirill is a prominent supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, describing it as a just defense of Russian nationalism and a crusade against the spread of liberal ideologies. Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, urged Kirill not to “turn himself into Putin’s altar boy”, and instead work for peace.
After Russia waged its war on the idea that Ukrainian identity, language, and nationality are myths, hundreds of other churches have shifted their allegiance from the Moscow Patriarchate to the one in Kyiv. Then in May, the Ukrainian branch that remained pro-Moscow formally broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church, citing that its leaders had fallen out with Patriarch Kirill over the war. But many of its clergy remain sympathetic to the Kremlin.
Dmytro Horevoi, a religious scholar and director of the Center for Religious Security in Kyiv, recently wrote in an online journal about the difficult situation many pastors find themselves in, and wants to stay on the fence.
“There are not many open clients among them,” he wrote. He added that priests are of the opinion that “no matter what nationality you are, the main thing is to believe in God and be humble.”
“In the ordinary world,” he wrote, “there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.” “But when it comes to the war for national identity, symbols and historical heritage, those who undermine national identity actually become complicit in the crime.”
Father Hieromonk Ioan, a member of the Kyiv Monastery, said the clergy there were not loyal to Moscow but were not ashamed of close historical ties with Russia. “We have certain relations with Russia and it is painful for us what is happening now,” he said in an interview outside the monastery after the raid.
The raid came several days after priest Mykhailo Omelian posted a video he said was taken by a graduate student showing people in the monastery’s church chanting for Russia. “Motherland is waking up – Russia,” people can be heard singing in the video.
Ukrainian authorities said they would launch an investigation to confirm its authenticity.
Said Vasyl Malyuk, head of the Ukrainian Security Service. “We will not tolerate such manifestations.”
According to the service, the officers checked on Tuesday whether the monastery buildings, which are scattered along the Dnipro River in central Kyiv, were used to house vandals or store weapons.
Father Hieromonk Ewan said that the clergy there simply wanted to pray in peace. “The most important thing,” he said, “is that the war is over—we’re praying for that.” “So that the guilty may be punished and that we may live in peace and not be afraid of tomorrow.”
Mark Santora Reported from Kyiv and Ivan Nikiporenko From Tbilisi, Georgia. Neil MacfarquharAnd the Matthew Mbok Begg And the Carly Olson Contribute to the preparation of reports.