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KYIV — On a frosty Saturday morning, several altar boys posed for group selfies next to the Dormition Cathedral of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery complex in the Ukrainian capital.
“It is for history! Moskals used to occupy this place, and now we are here,” said one of the boys, using a Ukrainian slur for Russians.
“No time for photos, boys! We have work to do,” a priest admonished the youngsters as the first-ever Christmas service of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was about to start in Lavra — an 11th-century monastery that is the most important religious center for Ukrainian Orthodox believers.
“God has graced us with a great gift during difficult trials: For the first time, the Ukrainian prayer of the local autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine is heard in the main cathedral church of the Assumption of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Christ was born! Let’s praise Him!” Church Metropolitan Epifaniy said during the Christmas service.
Just as Ukraine is fighting against Russia to maintain its sovereignty, Ukraine’s independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine is battling against Russian-backed priests for control over the Lavra Monastery complex, which is also known as the Monastery of the Caves. Rising numbers of Ukrainians have been moving away from the Russia-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is also known as the Ukrainian Church of Moscow Patriarchate, and have been switching allegiance to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, especially since February when Russia invaded Ukraine.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian-backed church started to be seen as a weapon of Moscow’s influence in Ukraine as many priests have allegedly collaborated with the Kremlin’s invading forces, according to the Ukrainian government.
“We have already achieved a moral victory because all people of goodwill condemn the acts of genocide, terror, and numerous war crimes committed by the evil Russian empire on our land,” Metropolitan Epifaniy said in the Christmas service.
Hundreds of parishioners came to Lavra for the first Christmas service in the Ukrainian language inside these walls. The Dormition Church was soon full of soldiers, priests and other believers, and people kept coming. Some had to stay outside and watch the service on TV screens even though the temperature was minus 8 degrees Celsius. Many people cried with joy.
“This is a historical event. A turning point. Even though it is still unclear whether the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will get the long-time rent from the state, we saw the government’s position. And it is clear. There will be no Moscow Church here anymore, thank God,” one believer, 19-year-old Hanna from Kyiv, told POLITICO. “Of course, we want them to go peacefully. We want to celebrate the birthday of Christ in peace.”
Previously, parishioners and priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine were not allowed to pray here, as the Dormition Cathedral, the main church of the Kyiv Pechersk Monastery, used to be the main headquarters of the Russia-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church, also known as the Moscow Patriarchate Church. So far it is unclear whether the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine will be allowed to stay in churches for more than one Christmas day, because the previous tenants, Moscow-backed priests, won’t agree to go in peace.
Although the Lavra priests deny they still have ties to Moscow, many of them are currently under investigation by the Security Service of Ukraine for alleged collaboration with Russian security forces and invading soldiers after Russian passports and Russian propaganda material were found during searches of monasteries. The priests refute the accusations.
While the entire Lavra complex is state-owned, Russian-affiliated orthodox priests had rented the Dormition Cathedral and nearby Trapezna Church from the state since the 1990s. In December, their lease expired and the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, the primary manager of Lavra, refused to prolong it, returning both temples to the state on January 5.
Russian-affiliated priests refused to acknowledge the decision, claiming despite the expiration of the lease that they have the right to stay in the Lavra churches until the war ends. Russian-affiliated priests also assert that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has no right to serve in the Dormition Cathedral.
“The events announced on the territory of the Lavra are an attempt to forcibly seize the cathedral by means of blackmail and misleading society,” the Russian-affiliated church said in a statement on Thursday.
The priests claimed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine announced the service before it received official permission and pressured the government in Kyiv to grant it.
The Lavra priests consider themselves the only genuine local Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Many times, Moscow-backed priests have called the Orthodox Church of Ukraine schismatic even though in 2019 Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, officially recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and granted it self-governorship.
“The Ukrainian shrine should serve the entire Ukrainian people, and we will adhere to this principle in the future,” Ukrainian Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko said in a statement on Telegram on Thursday.
Some 3,000 police officers were guarding the Lavra premises during the Christmas service Saturday morning.