One of the most sacred sites in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is about to be taken over by the Ukraine government or a rival church.
The government is preparing to evict 700 monks, students and staff from Kyiv’s Monastery of the Caves, formally known as Pechersk Lavra.
It’s because of its historical links with Moscow.
Huge crowds have been visiting the monastery to receive sacraments and pray there ahead of its impending closure.
“We don’t know what to expect but we are ready for everything,” said Nikodim Kaloger, a deacon and seminary graduate who has lived at the monastery for 12 years and plans to become a monk.
Religion News Service quotes him as saying: “We are going to stay here until the very end. The only weapon we have is our prayer.”
The 1,000-year-old monastery holds special significance for Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Christians.
They trace their Slavic Christian roots back to a mass baptism in Kyiv in the 10th-century.
The complex includes historic churches, relics and icons, catacombs and a state museum filled with medieval chronicles and other artifacts.
It’s also home to the main theological academy of the Ukraine Orthodox Church (UOC)
Many UOC churches have been subjected to security service raids and searches over the past six months.
The parliament is even considering an outright ban on the UOC.
Religion News Service reports the UOC has for centuries maintained allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church, and despite its condemnation of the Russian invasion and its declaration of full independence from Moscow in May 2022, has remained under suspicion.
Ukraine has also swapped several ‘collaborator’ UOC clergy for its soldiers captured by Russia.
“Of course sometimes our parishes, our priests have their own opinion and start trouble,” Mr. Kaloger said, emphasising that the church stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at services soon after last year’s invasion and that many parishioners and priests alike are defending the country in the Ukrainian armed forces.
A rival church, the self-governing Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), is expected to gain control over the monastery if the eviction is carried out.
The OCU was formally recognised by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 2019, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to threaten bloodshed.
Last Christmas, the government allowed the OCU, associated with the Ukrainian resistance, to celebrate a service at the monastery for the first time since Ukraine’s independence in 1991.
Its leader, Metropolitan Epifaniy, has repeatedly called for the Lavra monks to join his ranks, but few have followed him because they have concerns the OCU is not canonical and does not always follow proper procedures to ordain priests, according to Mr. Kaloger
Religion News Service reports each of the churches vying for control claims to be the largest Orthodox body in Ukraine.
The older UOC has about 12,000 parishes, compared with the OCU’s 7,000.
That’s according to statistics from 2021 but since the war started, an unknown number of parishes have transferred or split.
About 36% of Ukrainians call themselves “simply Orthodox” to avoid identifying with either church, while 40% belong to the OCU and 22% affiliate with the UOC, according to a survey taken a year ago.