Oksana Bidnenko is a staff correspondent for JURIST. She is a Ukrainian law student at the Riga Graduate School of Law in Riga, Latvia, and is currently an exchange student at the University of Oslo, Norway.
Last Saturday, April 1, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), Metropolitan Pavel, was placed under 60 days of house arrest by the Shevchenkivskyi Court of Kyiv. He is accused of promoting inter-confessional hate and supporting Russia’s armed action against Ukraine. Pavel has also been accused of frequently trying to promote hostility toward followers of different religions, particularly the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Pavel has insulted the OCU in his sermons, referring to them as “a group of atheists,” “demons,” and “self-saints.”
The security service of Ukraine claims that Pavel has supported Russia’s war in Ukraine and that Russia is attempting to utilize the church to spread its propaganda and split Ukrainian society. The UOC-MP’s clergy were compelled to leave the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra on March 30, 2023, after a contract between the National Reserve Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and the UOC-MP on the free use of the monastery was terminated. The UOC-MP priests sued the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra National Reserve, but their claim was rejected by the court. Meanwhile, priests and UOC-MP parishioners have repeatedly blocked a commission from the Ministry of Culture from entering the monastery to conduct an inventory of the Kyiv Cave Reserve’s property. The Union of Journalists of Ukraine has also reported widespread abuses of journalists’ rights around the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra that included breaking of cameras and abuse of correspondents.
The Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is a famous Orthodox Christian monastery with churches, monks’ lodgings, and underground chambers crammed with holy artifacts. It is located in Kyiv, and regarded by UNESCO as a masterpiece of human creative brilliance and has long been a prominent pilgrimage place. However, in November 2022, the Ukrainian security service conducted searches in the premises of numerous UOC-MP-controlled churches in Ukraine, including the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, where they found cash in the amount of more than 2 million hryvnias, more than 100 thousand US dollars, and several thousand Russian rubles. They also found pro-Russian literature, which is taught in seminaries and parish schools, including propaganda for “Russian peace.” In addition, officers found more than 50 people who underwent a polygraph test on the territory of the church premises. Some of them were foreigners, including citizens of Russia, who were on the territory of the facilities. Some of them showed Russian passports and badges, did not have original documents at all, or had passports of Ukrainian citizens with signs of forgery or damage. Additionally, officers found a 32-year-old Ukrainian who may be involved in the illegal activities of the pro-Russian news agency “Antvan.”
In addition, there have been reports of aggressive behavior by Moscow Partiarchate priests outside of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. A video was published on April 2 showing a man in a military uniform being physically assaulted by a man in clerical garb, who was later joined by others who pushed the soldier against a wall. The soldier can be heard in the video complaining about the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, which operates under the Moscow Patriarchate. The soldier, identified as Artur Ananiev, is a volunteer who was injured in combat and sustained a head injury during the incident. Following the assault of a military officer on the premises of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Khmelnytskyi City Council has voted unanimously to revoke the church’s land rights. All 38 members present at the session voted in favor of the decision, according to reports on April 4. In response to public outrage over the incident, residents organized a committee and collected signatures to transfer the building and its property to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Furthermore, on April 4, the Security Service reported that a priest from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate blessed Russian soldiers during the occupation of Kharkiv Oblast. The priest organized a procession to commemorate the Baptism of Kyivan Rus and urged local residents to attend. During the service, the priest blessed the Russian forces and consecrated their military equipment convoys. The SBU suspects that the priest used the religious service as a way to promote support for the occupation. The priest also allegedly ordered his colleagues to record the event on camera for publication on Kremlin media resources.
It has to be mentioned that prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church was highly supported by pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine who soon escaped to Russia as the invasion started. However, the accusations against Metropolitan Pavel and the recent search at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra suggest that the UOC-MP may also have played a role in supporting the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in a report published on 24 March said that searches by Ukrainian security forces in the buildings of the UOC MP may have a “discriminatory nature.” In fact for a long time the Moscow Patriarchate was untouchable in Ukraine in order to preserve democratic principles and human rights. However, after brutal Russian aggression it became more clear that UOC-MP was cheering on Russian occupational forces and collaborating with them before and after the invasion. Such behavior threatens Ukrainian territorial integrity and security of its citizens which we can see nowadays, so restricting the spread of Russian propaganda and hate speech against other denominations is more important than preserving UOC-MP in the territory of Ukraine.