The overhead video released last November shows no weapons, battlefield atrocities or even soldiers. But the sound of a Russian patriotic song echoing through a church in the famous Lavra Monastery in Kyiv seemed to open a new front in the war between Ukraine and Russia.
The church is owned by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) – which, despite its name, is traditionally loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church and whose current leader, Patriarch Kiril, has openly supported the brutal invasion of Moscow. Parting with Kiril, the UOC leadership denounced the Russian attack and last May declared independence from Russia.
In a sermon a few days after the split, Patriarch Kiril said he prayed that “no temporary external obstacle will ever destroy the spiritual unity of our people”.
A few days after the video was released, masked members of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) raided the Lavra – ostensibly, to prevent it being used to “hide sabotage and reconnaissance groups” or “store weapons”.
By December, a handful of church leaders had been disciplined and dozens of other churches across the country had been raided by the SBU – although the searches uncovered only a few Russian passports, symbols and books.
“There was no mention in the finds of weapons or saboteurs. What they said they found were printed matter, documents, which are not prohibited by Ukrainian law,” the Bishop of the UOC, Metropolitan Klyment, to CNN in an interview.
There are, however, many gray areas. In a statement, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) told CNN that it is not illegal to store Russian propaganda, but to distribute it. “If such literature is in the diocesan library or on the shelves of a church store, it is evident that it is intended for mass distribution,” the statement said.
He insisted that the raids against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church “were exclusively aimed at matters of national security. It is not a question of religion. Vladimir Legoyda, spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, however called the searches an “act of intimidation”.
Professor Viktor Yelenskyi, Ukraine’s new religious freedom watchdog, said that for more than 30 years the UOC leadership has been “poisoning people with ideas from the Russian world”. He defended the SBU raids, likening them to the crackdown on Islamic extremism after 9/11. “Ukraine is still a haven for religious freedom.”
Yet, at the end of 2022, the government refused to renew the church’s lease on its huge central Lavra Cathedral and handed over the keys to the namesake but completely separate Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). . The OCU rival celebrated Orthodox Christmas mass there (January 7) for the first time this year.
Speaking outside the church on Christmas Day, Alla, who declined to give her surname, said: “I think this should have been done a long time ago.”
“We tolerated this [UOC] evil and turning a blind eye because we thought we had to be tolerant, but the war brought it all to the surface.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church held this year’s Christmas Mass in a small church a short walk from the cathedral. Kyrylo Serheyev, a student at Lavra Seminary, said that this year in particular he is praying for Ukrainian troops. And despite government sanctions and scrutiny from his church, he insists “our patriotism is not diminishing.”
Viktoria Vinnyk said she was sad not to have mass in the central cathedral this year. Although she speaks Russian, she has never been to Russia.
“I hope for better in my country. And I hope the situation will change,” she said.
The cathedral is not the only holy place to change hands. Outside Kyiv, in the village of Vita Poshtova, a small church has been perched on a hill above the frozen lake since Soviet times. It’s the only one in the village. In September, the congregation voted to convert the UOC church to an independent OCU. Parishioner Olha Mazurets says she was uncomfortable with any connection to Russia.
“It’s about identity and self-preservation. We also have to identify our enemy,” she told CNN.
Father Pavlo Mityaev, the newly appointed priest said before the war, “People didn’t care whether it was a Ukrainian or a Russian-speaking church, they came to God. But when the war broke out, everything changed.
According to Klyment, up to 400 of the 12,000 UOC churches in Ukraine have converted to OCU since the start of the war.
Security services say that since the start of the full-scale invasion, 19 clergy have been charged and five have been convicted.
In December, UOC priest Andriy Pavlenko was sentenced to 12 years in prison for passing information on Ukrainian battlefield positions in the Donbass to the Russians. A week later, he was sent to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange.
Klyment acknowledges the guilt of this priest but dismisses other cases – such as the priest Vinnytsia indicted this week for spreading pro-Russian propaganda – as hollow accusations. He thinks the wider church is being unfairly tarnished.
“Members of Ukrainian Orthodoxy … are Ukrainian citizens, and sometimes among the best Ukrainian citizens, proving their patriotism with their own lives,” he said, referring to UOC members fighting on the front lines. .
In his December 1 night address, President Volodymyr Zelensky signaled his readiness to go beyond the raids – by proposing a law banning churches with “centres of influence” in Russia from operating in Ukraine – all in the name of “spiritual independence”.
“We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul,” he said.
But Klyment thinks the law would only drive his church underground.
“What else do you call persecution if not this?” He asked.