Members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery refused entry to gov’t commission representatives.
Scuffles broke out outside a Kyiv monastery on Thursady after a Ukrainian branch of the Orthodox Church that the government says has ties with Russia defied an eviction order.
Tensions over the presence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) at the 980-year-old Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery have risen since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Kyiv has accused the UOC of maintaining ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has supported Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The UOC has said it broke all links with the Russian Church in May 2022.
Hours after a deadline to leave the monastery passed at midnight on Wednesday, members of the UOC refused entry to representatives of a government commission who wanted to inspect buildings in the gold-domed monastery’s sprawling complex.
Shortly afterwards, scuffles broke out, the Reuters news agency reported. No one was hurt.
Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko later condemned the “brutal” treatment of the commission members. He said in a statement that the government had filed a complaint with police and that efforts to inspect the buildings would continue on Friday.
The UOC is Ukraine’s second-largest church, though most Ukrainian Orthodox believers belong to a separate branch of the faith, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, formed four years ago by uniting branches independent of Moscow’s authority.
Russia condemned Kyiv’s push against the UOC as an outrage and a crime.
“Such actions are increasingly plunging Ukraine into the Middle Ages in the very worst sense of the word,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on the Telegram app.
The deputy head of a Ukrainian state body responsible for the monastery earlier this month said that a government commission was being established to make decisions on questions related to the UOC’s tenancy agreement at the monastery.
The government claimed that the monks violated their lease by making alterations to the historic site and other technical infractions. The monks of the UOC disputed any violations, calling the claims a pretext.
The Ukrainian government has been cracking down on the UOC over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine.
The UOC has insisted that it is loyal to Ukraine, has denounced the Russian invasion and has even declared its independence from Moscow.
But Ukrainian security agencies have claimed that some in the Ukrainian church have maintained close ties with Moscow.
They have raided numerous holy sites of the church and later posted photos of rubles, Russian passports and leaflets with messages from the Moscow patriarch as proof that some church officials have been loyal to Russia.
Many Orthodox communities in Ukraine have cut their ties with the UOC, which was once one of the main sources of Russian influence in Ukraine.
They gradually transitioned to the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine after it received recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered the first among equals among leaders of the Eastern Orthodox churches but who lacks the universal power of a pope.
Moscow’s and most other Orthodox patriarchs refused to accept that designation that formalised a split with the Russian church.