Moscow, December 10, 2015
A possible transfer of the world-famous Kiev Pechersk Lavra, also known to historians and theologians as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to the non-canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate would be illegitimate from the point of view of both canon and secular law and would further aggravate tensions in Ukraine's religious life, Russian experts said on Thursday.
In reality, this problem has long had a more political than religious bent.
An Internet petition demanding a transfer of the Lavra (the very word meaning a monastery of the highest rank in the Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical organization - TASS) has gathered the needed 10,000 signatures and has been accepted for examination by the Kiev City Hall.
Founded in 1051, the Kiev Pechersk Lavra was the first major monastery in the olden Duchy of Kievan Rus and it is broadly viewed as the cradle of Russian monasticism. It is the site of repose of the relics of many monks whom the Eastern Orthodox Church has canonized as saints.
Placement of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra under the jurisdiction of the Kiev Patriarchate, which is not recognized by the global Orthodox community, is impossible in the format of effective Ukrainian legislation and the very idea is absurd, the chief spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Vassily Anisimov said.
"The initiative of certain political forces on the Lavra’s transition to the jurisdiction of the so-called Kiev Patriarchate that does not have the recognition of the Eastern Orthodox community cannot be viewed otherwise than a provocation aiming to jolt interreligious peace in Ukraine, fragile as it is," the clergy of the Lavra said in a statement.
Operating on the territory of Ukraine at present is the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is a canonical, self-governing and broadly autonomous division of the Russian Orthodox Church, the "Church" of the Kiev Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox "Church" (the two latter organizations are non-canonical), and the so-called Roman Catholic Church of the Eastern Rite, broadly called the Uniate Church in the former Soviet Union.
All the canonical national Eastern Orthodox Churches view the Kiev Patriarchate as a congregation of dissenters and outlaw Eucharistic contacts with it.
Since the emergence of the independent Ukrainian state in 1991, the persecution of clerics of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church and seizures of church buildings by activists of the Kiev Patriarchate were registered without a stop in all the western and central regions of Ukraine. They intensified particularly after the state coup of February 2014.
About 90 churches of the canonical Orthodox Church have been burned down or destroyed or severely damaged in the course of combat operations in eastern Ukraine. Attempts on the lives of clerics of the canonical Church have also been frequent.
The very demand of the internet petition is illegitimate from the standpoint of canonical law, since the Kiev Pechersk Lavra is a property asset of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kiev Patriarchate is a schismatic self-appointee, Dr. Sergey Perevezentsev, an acclaimed Russian historian and philosopher told TASS.
"Also, it would mean an overt interference in Church problems on the part of the government and would be tantamount to a forced expropriation of property," he said. "We’ve already seen the forced expropriations of church buildings and their transition of the Kiev Patriarchate or the Catholic Church of the Eastern Rite."
Should a decision of this kind be taken, it will certainly have a political underpinning, said Dr. Perevezentsev, who is a lecturer at Moscow Lomonosov State University.
"This action is nowhere near legal," he said. "It is a token of a policy of forcing the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church out of the territory of Ukraine and attaining its eventual elimination."
"At the same time, it falls in line with centuries-old practices laid down by the Polish administration in Ukraine, the then Little Russia that was part of the Polish Kingdom in the 17th century," Dr. Perevezentsev said. "The Poles coerced the Orthodox believers then to convert to the Uniate Church while the Orthodox parishes would be closed or handed to the Greek Catholic jurisdiction."
"But in the 17th century, too, the majority of faithful believers refused to do this — and were subjected to purges," he said.
The complexity of the situation goes beyond the purely religious factors and has a political aspect in it, believes Dr. Igor Zagarin, a lecturer at the Presidential Academy of Government Service (RANEPA).
"The problem of the Lavra’s transfer is political, in the first place," he told TASS. "It’s difficult to say how far the Ukrainian authorities may go. As you can see perfectly well the government claims it has no control over the rightwing radicals who blow up power transmission lines. The officials say they cannot do anything about it."
"They may pretend nothing has happed if the Lavra is seized someday," Dr. Zagarin said.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate remains Ukraine’s leader in terms of the number parishes and believers, although a number of churchgoers in the western parts of the nation have been goaded into the embrace of the Kiev Patriarchate, he said.
"But seizures of church buildings and attacks on the clergymen continue and rightwing radicals are the driving force," Dr. Zagarin said.