Long before the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra national preserve terminated the lease agreement with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) last fall, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) had conducted numerous searches on the premises of UOC-MP churches in various regions of the country. However, since March 29 the situation has worsened: UOC-MP clergymen refused to leave the premises of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and blocked the work of the Ministry of Culture commission on the transfer of state property.

Moreover, they hindered journalists from working and threatened them.

At the beginning of April, a court decision placed Metropolitan Pavel – the former abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra –under house arrest with an ankle monitor. SBU officers suspect him of supporting Russian aggression and inciting national and religious enmity. However, he denies all the accusations and states that the decision to expel the UOC-MP from the Lavra was politically motivated.

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UOC-MP priests have not left the Kyiv Lavra premises. However, the Verkhovna Rada is ready to vote on a resolution to evict them from the Pochaiv Lavra – the largest Orthodox shrine in the Volyn region and the second most important in Ukraine after the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.

Eviction from the Pochaiv Lavra

On April 3, more than 30 parliamentarians registered a draft resolution № 9179 on the parliament’s appeal to the Cabinet of Ministers to terminate the lease agreement with the UOC-MP for the complex of buildings of the Pochaiv Dormition Lavra. The Pochaiv Lavra, located in western Ukraine and dating back to at least the 16th century, is the second most important monastery in the country, after the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. In the explanatory note to the document, the legislators emphasize that today the Pochaiv Lavra is “a hotbed of the Russian world [the quasi-ideology justifying Russia’s invasion], an outpost of anti-Ukrainian forces and a center of inter-confessional confrontation and discord.”

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The Pochaiv Lavra includes 18 buildings. The lease agreement with the UOC-MP was signed back in 2003 and expires in 2052. The explanatory note says that in accordance with Ukrainian legislation alternate services with other churches can be held in the church buildings.

However, Metropolitan Onufriy, the primate of the UOC-MP, in a letter personally forbade priests from doing that. Moreover, the UOC-MP insists on the absurdity of the demand for alternate services with other churches.

“There is Article 35 of the Constitution of Ukraine, which separates the church from the state and the state from the church. How can the Verkhovna Rada tell who can conduct divine services in the Lavra? This is nonsense. Why can’t Muslims do that, why can’t Jews hold services there, and Protestants? We have the Constitution, now it is the 21st century, how can we talk about such things in the civilized society?” Metropolitan Kliment of Nizhyn and Pryluky, the head of the UOC-MP press office, said in a comment to Kyiv Post.

The resolution contains the Verkhovna Rada’s appeal to the Cabinet of Ministers so that the government could resolve the issue of terminating the contract. If the document is adopted, the government must within three months inform the parliament about the state of executing the resolution. Currently, the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy – the main authority responsible for considering the resolution – has already supported the document. Deputy Head of the Servant of the People faction Yevhenia Kravchuk, one of the authors of the legislative initiative, told Kyiv Post that the resolution could be voted as early as May. However, this will depend on the decision of the conciliation council and the total number of bills to be considered.

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“During consideration by the Committee [on Humanitarian and Information Policy] we saw that the Cabinet of Ministers represented by the Ministry of Culture shared our opinion. Therefore, in fact, the Cabinet of Ministers need not wait for the parliament to vote on this resolution as it is clear that it was unanimously approved by the Committee. This is the position of MPs. And now it is the executive power’s turn to act,” she said.

According to Kravchuk, it will be possible to terminate the lease agreement based on the results of an inspection of how the UOC-MP uses state property. After all, numerous violations were recorded in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, such as construction and plastic windows in the old building.

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In response, the UOC-MP emphasizes that there are no grounds for evicting the monks from the Pochaiv Lavra.

“Currently, there are no reasons for the monks to be evicted from the Pochaiv Lavra. They have never been evicted from the place where they have always lived, even in Soviet times – even Stalin did not evict them from there. I do not think that people in the parliament are worse than Stalin or Khrushchev. There was an idea to close the Pochaiv Lavra under the Soviet government, under Khrushchev. The monks turned to international authorities and sent a letter abroad causing an international scandal, and the monks were not resettled,” Metropolitan Kliment noted.

The prohibition of UOC-MP activities in Ukraine: what the government law proposes

The National Security and Defense Council in its decision dated Dec. 1, 2022 ruled that the Cabinet of Ministers should within two months submit to the parliament a separate draft law banning religious organizations affiliated with the Russian Federation. On Jan. 19 of this year, the government submitted to the Verkhovna Rada corresponding bill № 8371 developed by the Ministry of Justice jointly with the State Service for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience.

The Verkhovna Rada assures that it meets European standards. The document offers a clear procedure: the State Service for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience inspects religious organizations. If during the examination it discovers that a religious organization is affiliated with the aggressor country, it orders that such ties be broken within a month. If the organization does not eliminate the violation, the state service brings the case to court. It is a court decision that can cancel the registration of a religious organization.

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“That's why it is a rather lengthy procedure, but within civilized norms. Moscow Patriarchate representatives generally say, ‘No, no, we have already broken the ties,’ although the inspection proves that they have not – e.g. Onufriy in the Russian Orthodox Church synod and the like. If they really broke the ties, then what should they be afraid of? Obviously, they didn’t, that’s why they are trying to resist the adoption of this bill,” Kravchuk notes.

The Verkhovna Rada feels pressure due to the upcoming vote

The parliamentary committee on humanitarian policy hopes that draft law № 8371 will be submitted to the parliament for consideration in May. After all, the committee has already approved it. Verkhovna Rada Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk recently held a meeting with representatives of the Council of Churches. They sent an official letter to support the vote on this draft law as a basis at first reading.

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“Council of Churches representatives offer their revisions. Of course, we will include their representative in the working group, but they agree that there should not be criminals in cassocks and there cannot be any church affiliated with Russia in Ukraine,” Kravchuk added.

According to her, MPs receive messages on the phone and letters via email with the same content urging them not to vote.

“This is just a letter sent by someone. I don’t know whether these are real people. For example, I received a letter and there was a cat on the avatar. We feel that there is certain influence on MPs. The Moscow church prevents them from voting for the law,” the official said.

The Volyn, Rivne, and Khmelnytsky regional councils have already banned the activities of the UOC-MP in the regions. However, the parliament clarifies that such decisions are null and void, it is rather the political position of the deputies of these regional councils who express the interests of the voters. At the same time, city and territorial communities can and have already started breaking lease agreements with UOC-MP churches. However, many religious buildings are not in municipal ownership.

According to open data, from Dec. 15, 2018 to April 18, 2023, some 1,327 religious communities and monasteries announced the transition from the UOC-MP to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Since the full-scale Russian invasion, the number of parishes that left the UOC-MP was the largest in May of last year – 229, while at least 72 parishes have left the UOC-MP in April of this year.

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