©Reuters. Metropolitan Epifaniy I, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, leads for the first time a Christmas service at the Uspenskyi (Holy Assumption) Cathedral on the site of Kiev’s Pechersk Lavra Monastery, previously used by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church b 2 /5
By Max Hunder
Kyiv (Reuters) – Tears of joy streamed down the faces of believers as Ukraine’s main church celebrated a “return” to the Cathedral of the Assumption in Kyiv on Orthodox Christmas Day, shortly after being seized control of it by a rival church with alleged ties to Russia had taken over.
The golden-domed cathedral, which is of great cultural and religious importance, is located on a high hill in central Kyiv on the Dnipro River and is part of the 980-year-old Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, which also contains chapels and administrative buildings.
It has become the focal point of a bitter conflict between Ukraine’s Orthodox communities, sparked by the Russian invasion.
Members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), Ukraine’s largest, crowded into the ornate interior of the cathedral on Saturday to hear the first-ever Ukrainian-language service at the cathedral.
“In this holiday season we ask God with strong feelings: Help us to defeat the enemy who has brought suffering into our home. Help us to finally expel the foreign invasion from the Ukrainian land,” said OCU Patriarch Epifaniy I.
Vadym Storozhyk, a 50-year-old Kyiv city councilor, said he saw the Christmas service as the “return” of a holy site under Ukrainian control.
“Thirty years after we renewed our history and gained our independence, we are returning to our holy places, to our (spiritual) sources,” he said.
Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, who attended the service with the Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, posted a message on Facebook (NASDAQ:) celebrating the end of three and a half centuries of Moscow’s “conquest” of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine, in its various versions, has been subordinate to Moscow since the 17th century.
Ukraine has about 30 million Orthodox believers divided into different church communities. The war, now in its eleventh month, has prompted many Ukrainians to rally around the OCU, which they see as more pro-Ukrainian than its rival, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC).
The UOC was officially under the wing of the Russian Orthodox Church until May 2022, but announced a severing of ties due to the Moscow Church’s support for the war.
President Vladimir Putin, in an Orthodox Christmas message on Saturday, commended the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Moscow’s armed forces fighting in Ukraine, calling it an important stabilizing force in society.
Despite the severed ties, the UOC still faces allegations of pro-Russian views and direct cooperation with Moscow from the Ukrainian government and much of the Ukrainian press and civil society, which it denies. UOC says it is the victim of a political witch hunt by government enemies.
The UOC were evicted from the cathedral after their lease expired from the government.
The handing over of the cathedral surprised many – an OCU priest, Vasyl Rudnytskyi, looked stunned as he walked towards the building’s gates amid the deafening ringing of bells.
“I didn’t even think two weeks ago that we would be celebrating the birth of Jesus in such a significant place for the Ukrainian people,” he said.
The OCU was founded in 2019 and recognized as the official branch of Orthodoxy in Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul, the world leader of the Orthodox Church.
This decision enraged the Russian Orthodox Church, as Istanbul had previously recognized the UOC, then under Moscow rule, as the legitimate Ukrainian church.
Some UOC clergymen and many of their supporters relocated to the OCU, much to the dismay of the former organization. Both churches say the other is canonically illegitimate. Although the OCU soon outnumbered the old church, the UOC retained control of over 12,000 churches, including the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra complex.
Ukrainian government institutions and the local press often refer to the UOC as the “Moscow Patriarchate,” a label the church rejects. A poll last August showed that the UOC retained just 20% of its faithful as of 2021, suggesting many had deserted it since the invasion, but the church told Reuters that data did not reflect reality.
Speaking in a chapel on the monastery’s grounds, UOC spokesman Metropolitan Kliment told Reuters the government’s actions were a “provocation designed to anger and humiliate millions of UOC worshipers”.
Lyudmyla, a 69-year-old believer, said she feared the government was biased against the UOC.
“I do not like that. We must now be united and not divided. And that could lead to a kind of religious divide (in our society),” she said.
UOC monasteries and churches, including the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, have faced a wave of searches by Ukrainian security forces and police have announced a series of investigations.
Authorities said they found pro-Russian literature and Russian citizens being housed on the church’s grounds, which UOC denied.