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‘Only God knows the future’ A cleric from the historically Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Kyiv's recent raids
In late May 2022, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared its full independence from the Moscow Patriarchate (though it didn’t sever relations with the Russian institution completely; for example, its primate is still confirmed by the Moscow Patriarchate). Six months later, the Ukrainian Security Service began conducting raids on Ukrainian Orthodox Church sites, including the historic Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, in search of “weapons or members of sabotage and reconnaissance groups.” According to Ukrainian authorities, intelligence officers found “symbols” of the now-banned pro-Russian party Opposition Platform — For Life in the churches, as well as “brochures calling for a peace deal with the ‘brotherly Russian people’ and glorifying the ‘Russian land’ and ‘Russian soldiers.’” In response, Kyiv imposed sanctions against multiple Ukrainian Orthodox Church priests, and Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree banning the activities of “religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in Russia.” Meduza spoke with Ukrainian Orthodox Church representative Metropolitan Kliment about these developments.
On November 22, the Ukrainian Security Service raided the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a historic monastery in the Ukrainian capital. The surprise search was just one part of a larger campaign by Ukrainian intelligence services to find evidence of subversive pro-Russian activities in the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church; authorities have conducted similar raids at a number of church sites in recent weeks.
Though intelligence officials reported finding propaganda materials promoting the idea of the “Russian world,” among other things, Ukrainian Orthodox Church spokesperson Metropolitan Kliment told Meduza that he thinks the raids were unjustified.
“As far as the reasons [for the raids], you’d need to ask the Ukrainian Security Service. Their motives for these activities is still unknown. From the outside, it all looks like a form of intimidation. According to the agency, their goal was to search for weapons and diversionary groups on the monasteries’ territory. But neither weapons nor diversionary groups, nothing at all that could indicate a threat to state security on the part of our church’s congregants, has been found,” he said.
On the contrary, the cleric argued, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has done everything in its power to support Ukrainians since the start of the full-scale war.
“The church doesn’t just pray for victims. It does everything it can to accommodate displaced people in church facilities, such as monasteries. It also provides financial assistance, especially to people with children,” he said. “[...] But that’s just one aspect. The Church has a presence in the regions [directly] affected by the war, and while it can’t provide humanitarian assistance on a large scale in those areas, it does try to provide [parishioners] with psychological and spiritual support in various ways.”
Metropolitan Kliment also reiterated that the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy, made a statement condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine on the first day of the full-scale invasion. Nonetheless, since the start of the war, Ukrainian officials have opened at least 33 criminal cases against priests for allegedly assisting Moscow. Additionally, in early December, authorities hit a number of Ukrainian Orthodox Church clergy members with sanctions — a measure Metropolitan Kliment criticized as depriving the clerics of their right to due process.
“The fact that sanctions are being imposed against Ukrainian citizens by the Ukrainian authorities is fairly strange. We have a legal system that determines whether a person is guilty or innocent, and to accuse someone and apply restrictions [against them] without a court decision is a practice that’s inconsistent with the Constitution of Ukraine, to put it lightly,” he said.
In 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine — a separate body that has no ties to Moscow — was officially granted self-governorship by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, making it the only canonical Ukrainian Orthodox church from the perspective of the spiritual head of Orthodoxy worldwide. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s declaration of independence from the Russian Orthodox Church didn’t come until May of this year (and was rejected by the Moscow Patriarchate). But according to Metropolitan Kliment, Moscow’s views on the matter are irrelevant, and his church is fully independent.
“It’s unclear to us exactly why our church is receiving this attention at the same time that several bishops from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, according to the media, have Russian passports and received them after the annexation of Crimea. There’s also evidence that some bishops from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine even agreed to work with the leadership of the unrecognized DNR and LNR.”
Survey data from the Ukrainian research institute Info Sapiens found that as of March 2022, only 4 percent of Ukrainians considered themselves members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — a figure that’s likely only decreased in the eight months since. Still, Metropolitan Kliment stressed to Meduza that the institution of his church is inseparable from its parishioners.
“The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the Ukrainian people. A huge number of our believers serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and other military formations, defending our independence and fighting against Russian aggression,” he said. “To say that these people aren’t patriots is, at the very least, amoral and unfounded.”
And despite his objections to the Ukrainian authorities' investigations into the church, Metropolitan Kliment said he doesn’t believe the institution’s existence is under threat.
“Only God knows the future. But at the very least, already having some experience with pressure against churches from government agencies, we can confidently say that this only consolidates believers. For example, in 2018, during the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, who used the slogan ‘Army, language, faith,’ during his campaign, many priests were targeted by trumped-up criminal charges and had their homes raided. There was a real threat to the lives and freedom of many believers. But as we saw, not only did it not cause damage to our church, it also showed that repression against the church will not bring results,” he told Meduza.
English-language adaptation by Sam Breazeale
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