SBU intelligence says the raid was to investigate suspicions that Russia was using the complex for sabotage and to store weapons.

Ukrainian security and police have raided a 1,000-year-old Orthodox Christian monastery in Kiev to counter suspected “subversive activities by Russian special services”.

The sprawling Kyiv Pechersk Lavra complex – or the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves – is a Ukrainian cultural treasure, and its cathedral, churches and other buildings are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Facing the right bank of the Dnieper River, it is also the headquarters of the Russian-backed wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and falls under the Moscow Patriarchate.

Ukraine’s counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism service said the search was part of its “systematic work to counter the subversive activities of Russia’s special services in Ukraine”.

The statement from the intelligence agency, known as the SBU for its initials in Ukrainian, said the operation was aimed at preventing the monastery’s use as “the center of the Russian world” and was carried out to investigate suspicions “about the use of the premises… for housing sabotage and reconnaissance groups, foreign citizens, [and] weapons storage”. It said another location was also being sought in the Rivne region, 240 kilometers (150 mi) west of the capital.

a group of Orthodox Christian priests in black robes and with long gray beards stand outside the Kiev Pechersk Lavra Monastery.  Ukrainian intelligence and police officers are also in the picture, one in uniform stands with his back to the camera in the foreground
Orthodox priests speak with Ukrainian law enforcement officials. The raid followed reports of a sermon at a recent service where the priest spoke positively about Russia [Press Service of the State Security Service of Ukraine via Reuters]

The concept of “Russian world” is central to President Vladimir Putin’s new foreign policy doctrine, which aims to protect the Russian language, culture and religion. It has been used by conservative ideologues to justify intervention abroad.

The SBU did not comment on the outcome of the operation.

War deepens division

In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukrainian authorities of “waging war against the Russian Orthodox Church”.

He described the search “as another link in the chain of these aggressive actions against Russian Orthodoxy”.

Moscow-based ecclesiastical authorities have repeatedly expressed their support for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, described the war as a “metaphysical battlebetween Moscow and the West. He condemned Tuesday’s search as “an act of intimidation”.

The raid will further strain already strained relations between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians.

“Like many other cases of persecution of believers in Ukraine since 2014, this act of intimidation of believers will almost certainly go unnoticed by those who call themselves the international human rights community,” said Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church.

The SBU operation follows a Nov. 12 service at the Pechersk Lavra complex where a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was filmed speaking about Russia’s “awakening”.

The SBU said it was “investigating the details of the incident that took place in one of the temples of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra – where songs were sung praising the ‘Russian world'”.

An aerial view of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra with its golden domes poking through the fog
The thousand-year-old Kiev Pechersk Lavra is a World Heritage Site and one of the most famous places in the Ukrainian capital [File: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]

Last Friday, the SBU said it had accused a senior pastor from the western region of Vinnytsia of distributing pamphlets that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

In May, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate ended its ties with the Russian Church over the latter’s support of what Moscow calls a “special military operation”.

Ukraine says the large-scale invasion was an unprovoked war of aggression.

A 2020 survey by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of Ukraine’s main Orthodox Church, while 14 percent were members of the Ukrainian Patriarchate Church in Moscow.

In 2019, Ukraine received permission from the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide to form a church independent from Moscow, ending centuries of religious ties between the two countries.

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