Ukraine Vs. the Monks: a Soviet Tale

The state ramps up its persecution of the Orthodox Church while Russia’s war continues

As we have written before, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is stuck between a rock and a hard place: The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, with which the Ukrainian Church used to be associated, has essentially abandoned his Ukrainian flock, choosing rather to justify the war in his public homilies, while the Ukrainian state is also at war with the Church.

Of course, the military war continues, which means the churches and monasteries of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church continue to suffer physical damage. Most recently, the Iveron Monastery in the Odessa Diocese was hit by a Russian missile, causing damage to one of the buildings and injuring four people. Thankfully, no one was killed, though sadly, that can't be said for all previous attacks. 

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian state's wrath against its own people in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church only waxes hotter.

Previously, the state had evicted the Church from the upper section of the historic Kyiv Caves Lavra, and now it has informed the Church that it has until the end of March to leave the monastery altogether.

The Lavra is the oldest and most important spiritual center in Ukraine. Founded in the 11th century, it has produced countless saints and continues to inspire the entire Orthodox world today. Sadly, the monastery fell under state control during the Soviet Union, and unlike in Russia where the most important sites have been returned to the monastery, the Ukrainian government continues to zealously hold onto the territory, which it dubs a museum, or "National Reserve."

Out of one side of its mouth, the state claims the Church must leave because it violated the terms of its lease for usage of the Lavra, while out of the other side state representatives openly proclaim on air that the monks just have to switch to another religious jurisdiction and then they'll be allowed to stay. 

In Ukraine, in addition to the Church that has existed for 1,000 years already, and which is recognized by the entire Orthodox world, there is also a state-created schismatic group whose identity is entirely wrapped up in being not Russian, whereas the canonical Church actually behaves like a Christian body—condemning the war, but not seething with hatred for Russians and all things Russian. 

It's truly bewildering that the state insists on persecuting and driving out the canonical Church, which, in fact, was the first religious organization in Ukraine to condemn the war when it began last February. The head of the Church, Metropolitan Onuphry of Kyiv and All Ukraine, and the governing Holy Synod have continually condemned the war, and the Church has helped thousands, if not millions of suffering people throughout Ukraine and abroad. 

And to this day, despite the open persecution against the Church, its people continue to fight in the armed forces and to donate towards the armed forces.

But instead of embracing them as patriots, the state willfully and belligerently chooses to see them as enemies. State representatives proclaim bold-faced lies about the Church almost daily in the Ukrainian media, increasing religious enmity throughout the state.

And these lies are picked up and proclaimed in international media as well. The New York Times, for just one of many examples, recently published about the Lavra clerics who are "loyal to Moscow." Tucker Carlson at Fox News seems to be the only major journalist who sees what's going on. 

In January, an "expert group" tasked with examining the Ukrainian Church's relationship to the Russian Church declared that the former remains a part of the latter. However, it came to this conclusion based on documents of the Russian Church, not on documents of the Ukrainian Church.

The Ukrainian Church has been administered entirely from Kyiv for more than 30 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union. It previously maintained a spiritual-canonical association with the Russian Church, but in May, it willingly severed itself entirely from the Moscow Patriarchate, and completely removed any mention of the Russian Church from its governing documents, which are registered with the state. 

However, the Russian Church refuses to accept this separation and so its documents still reflect the previous reality, and on this basis, the "expert group" declared that the Ukrainian and Russian Churches remain united, which is a clear step towards the state entirely banning the Ukrainian Church. 

As Ukrainian Church representatives have pointed out, this would be like the Ukrainian state looking at Russian maps and concluding that Crimea and the Donbas really do belong to Russia…

Meanwhile, the Russian side just can't help itself. Seeing the persecution of the Church and the imminent eviction of the Kievan monks, Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Holy Synod, and Russian state officials have made public calls for the world to speak out in defense of the suffering Ukrainian Church. 

But this only furthers the perception that the Ukrainian Church is a Russian fifth column, that its clergy and people are collaborators with the Russians, and that only increases the fervor of the Ukrainian state's persecution of the Church. 

 But it is noteworthy and a good sign that the international community is starting to speak up. Bishops, clerics, monasteries, and faithful from around the Orthodox world have begun making statements in defense of the Ukrainian Church, which they canonically recognize, as opposed to the pretender church that is propped up by the Ukrainian state.

And influential organizations such as the United Nations and the World Council of Churches have both publicly expressed their concern about the fate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the monks of the Kyiv Caves Lavra, which could make Ukraine nervous, given its desire to seem like a worthy democratic candidate for European integration. 

However, as much as Ukraine loves to proclaim its European direction, it behaves more like the Soviet Union in many ways. 

Why does the state still own Church property and dictate who can live and serve there? 

Why is the state planning to kick hundreds of monks and theology students out onto the streets?

Why do state representatives intentionally fan the flames of religious enmity against their best people? 

Why is the state intent on banning an entire religion within its borders? 

Why does the state allow, and often facilitate, the illegal and violent takeovers of churches throughout the country?

What does any of this have to do with democracy? 

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