Armed police inspected vehicles entering and leaving the Pechersk-Lavra monastery complex on Wednesday, the deadline for those remaining loyal to Moscow to pack up and leave the holy site. In the meantime, a couple of hundred worshippers had gathered for a service there on a cold, wet, and snowy day in Kyiv.

The representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate did not evacuate today, as they continue to assert their right to remain there, pending judicial process. Their supporters were vocal in their protests at the Lavra on Wednesday, shouting angrily at journalists and decrying what they saw as religious oppression. Some said they were ready to die for the church.

The Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves, has been home to approximately 1,000 followers of Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, long considered by many Ukrainians as a fifth column of the Kremlin. The massive monastery complex is also full of precious religious artifacts and relics. The police inspections are mostly targeted at safeguarding those priceless icons, paintings, crucifixes, etc. to ensure that they are not removed from the government-owned site.

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When asked why the check of vehicles coming and going from the church was being conducted in such a hands-off manner, one of the officers, speaking on condition of anonymity told Kyiv Post: “Some of us have our own ideas of how things should be done.”

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A worshipper at the Pechersk-Lavra monastery complex on Wednesday. PHOTO Zoya Shu

About 4 percent of Ukrainians (about 1.38 million people ) consider themselves loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate. Many of the worshippers present at the Lavra said they believe the United States is paying the Ukrainian leadership to take their God away from them. This sentiment was expressed loudly among the believers gathered there.

Said one man who attended the service, “They are cursed, the ones who are kicking us out. They are taking American money. They lack wisdom.”

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Outside of the areas of prayer, tensions were high. Small crowds, often raising their voices in anger, formed around the reporters and cameramen.

Worshippers at the Pechersk-Lavra monastery complex on Wednesday. PHOTO Zoya Shu

One elderly worshipper from western Ukraine insisted in Ukrainian that European standards were being violated.

“They would never treat us this way in Europe,” she said. “There, they have religious equality. It doesn’t matter if you are a Muslim or a Catholic, if it is a holy day, they let people celebrate it, they give you a day off. They honor the Catholic Christmas, but here they have eliminated our Christmas Day.”

“We are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church [Moscow Patriarchate] and we want to go into the EU,” she continued. “What they are doing to us is heresy and all of Europe is disgusted with it.”

“Look at how many Ukrainians have been stripped of their citizenship for their beliefs,” she added. “This proves that we are not needed by this leadership. They want to get rid of us.

“They are punishing us, evicting us, finishing us. If we are punished for our faith, this is our vindication. Do you believe in Jesus? They crucified him. We are attesting to the church of Jesus Christ and we are ready to die for that church.”

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PHOTO Zoya Shu

What the hierarchs are saying

The Vicar of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, Metropolitan Pavel (nicknamed Pasha Mercedes for his fondness for luxury cars), said that he and the clergy of the UOC-MP have the right to stay and do not plan to leave the Lavra until the end of the legal proceedings.

“The law is on our side,” Pavel was reported to have said by Ukrainska Pravda. “We will stay in the Lavra until the court proceedings are over. We have a long-term lease that cannot be terminated during wartime.”

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine – Kyiv Patriarchate (OCU-KP) has offered to let the monks and priests stay under their aegis, as long as the hierarchs loyal to Moscow left.

“We were offered a ‘compromise," Pavel added. “The Blessed Onufriy [the Metropolitan of Kyiv for the UOC-MP], the seminarians, and I were to leave the Lavra. I told them that one does not come down from the cross, one is taken it down from the cross.”

Metropolitan Epiphanius of the OCU-KP assured the monks at the Lavra on March 18 in an open address that the monastery on the territory of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra would not be closed, and the language of services would be Old Slavonic along with modern Ukrainian.

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“First of all, it should be emphasized that there is no question of the closure of this monastery, the cessation of prayer, services, and monastic life in it,” he said.

“Moscow’s spiritual power in Ukraine is non-canonical, and everyone sees how the Kremlin uses it against the Ukrainian people,” he emphasized.

PHOTO Zoya Shu

New Vicar appointed by Kyiv Patriarchate

Meanwhile, in a deeply conciliatory gesture, Metropolitan Epiphanius of the OCU-KP appointed Avramiy (Lotysh) earlier today to perform the duties of the Vicar at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Avramiy was previously a representative of the UOC-MP.

“As a member of the Lavra Spiritual Council, I have long felt a special responsibility for the fate of our common home with you… I have spent a lot of time in prayer and reflection. Both my conscience and my duty to the Lavra urge me to stay in the place where I made my vows before God,” Avramiy said.

He urged the priests and monks “to stay in the Lavra as part of the local Orthodox Church of Ukraine under the omophorion of His Beatitude Metropolitan Epiphanius,” adding: “I am ready to communicate with you and I want to work together with you to renew our monastery as a real monastery and a place of spiritual renewal for monks and all the faithful.”

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