Ukrainian Orthodox churches closed by authorities and properties seized over alleged ties to Moscow Patriarchate
Kiev Mayor Vitaly Klitschko on Friday ordered the closure of 74 churches belonging to the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), citing its alleged “direct ties” to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Klitschko’s decree is similar to that used to seize the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, which Ukrainian police stormed last month. The world-famous holy site, which is nearly 1,000 years old, was handed over to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a rival organization set up by the government in 2018.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia © Sputnik / Alexey Filippov
The Lavra is technically state property but the church administered it under a 2013 agreement, which Kiev declared null and void earlier this year, claiming that the UOC violated it by having ties to “enemy nation” Russia. Ukrainian courts rejected the UOC’s appeals.
In 2018, Ukrainian authorities decided to establish their own Orthodox Church separate from the ROC. With the support of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, the process for its establishment began. In October 2018, the Synod of the Constantinople Church revoked a 17th-century decree that placed the Kiev Metropolis under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The ROC regarded these actions as encroachments on its canonical territory and suspended canonical communion with Constantinople.
In December of the same year, a so-called unification council of Orthodox churches in Ukraine took place in Kiev, during which the head of the new church structure, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kiev, was elected. In early 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch granted the OCU the tomos of autocephaly. The ROC criticized Constantinople’s actions as a gross violation of church canons. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow suggested that there was a deliberate attempt to destroy the ROC: “This is not just a struggle for jurisdiction; it is a struggle to remove the only powerful Orthodox force in the world. They want to squeeze canonical Orthodoxy out of the religious field of Ukraine.”
The newly sequestered sites may be handed over to the OCU or the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is in communion with Rome, or could even be demolished as “illegal objects” given the government’s annulment of lease and use contracts.
Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople © Burak Kara / Getty Images
Back in March, President Vladimir Zelensky called the seizure of the Lavra “a move to strengthen our spiritual independence” and accused the UOC of being a tool of Russia. A third of Ukraine’s regions have outrightly banned the UOC so far.
Moscow has accused Kiev of persecuting the canonical Orthodox church and Washington for tacitly approving Ukraine’s actions.
The US State Department, which produces an annual “religious freedom” report, has never commented on Kiev’s campaign against the UOC. The reports published so far contain references only to meetings with representatives of the government-backed OCU.