(RNS) — Orthodox Christians who support their church’s historic ties to Moscow prevented the Ukrainian government from taking possession of several buildings at the Monastery of the Caves complex in Kyiv on Tuesday (July 4), with dozens of protesters surrounding the entrance and blocking officials from entering.
The fate of the 1,000-year-old Pechersk Lavra complex has been in question since Russia’s invasion in February 2022 brought increased scrutiny on Ukrainian Orthodox Church clergy, some of whom were accused of spying on behalf of the invaders. Though the UOC has condemned the Russian invasion and declared full administrative independence from Moscow in 2022, it has remained suspect for maintaining what its leaders call a “spiritual tie” to Moscow.
Both Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Christians trace their Slavic Christian roots to a mass baptism in 10th-century Kyiv and claim a special connection to the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra.
In March 2023, the Ukrainian government, which has owned the monastery since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., did not renew the UOC’s lease. The Ukrainian Culture Ministry threatened to evict some 700 UOC monks, as well as students and staff at the UOC’s main theological academy and a state museum on the grounds and workers at the site’s cathedral and other churches.
Though some have left voluntarily, moving to other UOC monasteries to avoid the commotion and media attention, many have defiantly remained. “We’re still in the Lavra against all odds,” Nikodim Kalonger, a UOC deacon who lives at the monastery, told Religion News Service. “It’s our home. We built it to live forever in it.”
The lease termination allowed the rival independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, widely recognized in 2019 and associated with Ukrainian nationalism, to celebrate Easter in the cathedral for the first time since Ukraine’s independence.
On Tuesday, Maxim Ostapenko, a specialist in protecting historical monuments and the government’s acting general director of the site, told Ukrainian Orthodox media that representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were notified of the plan to seal off buildings not being used for religious purposes. He said the UOC representatives had agreed to grant access to the buildings.
A lawyer for the UOC, Archpriest Nikita Chekman, said in a statement on Telegram that the commission’s move to seal off the buildings is illegal because a court case over the UOC’s eviction is ongoing.