Anger grows over Ukraine's largest Orthodox church, aligned with Moscow despite war
KYIV, Ukraine — On a recent autumn afternoon, Ukrainian worshipers with a branch of the Orthodox church long tied to Moscow gathered on a street outside a monastery in Kyiv to sing and pray.
They come here often as an act of protest against a decision issued by Ukrainian authorities earlier this year.
Government officials effectively banished clergy loyal to the Moscow patriarch from the most sacred parts of a nearby gold-domed monastery complex called the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra.
"Our monks lived here from ancient times," said Metropolitan Clement, bristling with anger. "Access is closed now to clergymen and to many believers who could come to to pray here even in Soviet times."
Clement is spokesman for the largest Orthodox community in Ukraine, which has been governed by the Moscow patriarch since the 1600s.
Those ties became intensely controversial in February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine with the blessing of Kirill, the Moscow patriarch and head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Speaking last year, Kirill promised Russian soldiers who die in the conflict that their "sacrifice washes away all sins."
A militant Russian church retains millions of believers inside Ukraine
The militant role of the Russian Orthodox Church has drawn condemnation from religious leaders including Pope Francis, who described Kirill as "Putin's altar boy."
Kirill's embrace of the war also sparked growing rage and division within Ukraine, where millions of Ukrainians still choose to worship in Moscow-affiliated Orthodox churches.
Researchers say before the war began there were roughly 12,000 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine linked to Russia. Over the last 19 months, only about 1,500 of those congregations have voted to join a break-away Ukrainian-led church.
"They are really believers, very strong in their faith," said Karen Nikiforov, a Ukrainian who studies religion in Kyiv, explaining why more churches don't leave the Moscow patriarchate.
He noted the irony that Russia-aligned parishes remain particularly popular in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has destroyed whole cities, committed war crimes and even destroyed Orthodox holy sites.
Nikiforov is himself a member of the Moscow-aligned church.
In an interview with NPR, he said many believers, like himself, feel trapped between two worlds. The war has placed their traditional faith, dating back generations, in conflict with their loyalty to Ukraine.
"I'm not proud of my church now but I'm still there, like believers often do," he said. "We are not ideal."
Officials with the Moscow-aligned church say they have taken steps to distance themselves from Patriarch Kirill. Clergy in Kyiv issued a statement last year formally condemning the invasion.
They also note that many soldiers fighting against Russia are members of the Moscow-aligned church.
"Thousands of our believers and hundreds of sons of our priests defend Ukraine," said Metropolitan Clement, in an interview with NPR. "Burials of defenders of Ukraine take place every day at our churches."
In May 2022, clergy within Ukraine's Moscow-aligned Orthodox church circulated a resolution that would have led to a complete divorce from Russia and its influence. But that resolution was never ratified.
Critics point out that top clergy in Ukraine also failed to issue a statement denouncing Patriarch Kirill's support for the invasion.
Nikiforov, the religious scholar, said he believes his church hasn't yet done enough to distance itself from Russia. "It's half-half, it's not done, it's not full," he said.
Wiretaps, church raids and priests facing accusations of disloyalty
As the war's bloody toll grows, public anger at Orthodox clergy who remain under Patriarch Kirill's purview has also grown.
It surged again earlier this year after Ukraine's intelligence service, known as the SBU, released a wire-tap phone recording of a top religious leader, Metropolitan Pavel, apparently praising Russia's invasion.
"There are already Russian flags everywhere," Pavel can be heard saying. "And people are happy. People are happy."
A separate recording released last November appeared to show Moscow-aligned Orthodox believers in Kyiv singing, "Mother Russia is awakening."
Those sentiments sparked outrage and led to regular counter-protests outside the monastery complex in Kyiv.
Angry Ukrainians turn up on most days to confront Orthodox worshippers loyal to the Russian tradition, shouting insults through bullhorns and accusing them of disloyalty.
"We are at war with Russia," said Alex Melnick, who carried Ukraine's blue and yellow national flag. "We are protesting against the Moscow church, against the Moscow priests."
There's a growing debate in Ukraine over just how much their society should tolerate Orthodox believers loyal to the Moscow church in a time of bitter war.
Since independence in the 1990s, Ukraine has developed a tradition of religious freedom. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. Defense Minister Rustem Umerov is Muslim.
Religious scholars say roughly a hundred different religions are practiced freely and without interference within the country.
But Ukraine's government clearly views Orthodox clergy influenced by Russia as a threat.
The SBU has been raiding Moscow-aligned churches, searching homes of some top clergy and prosecuting priests suspected of actively aiding Russia.
Meanwhile, some religious leaders in Ukraine say it's time for the Moscow-aligned church to be banned outright.
"Our armed forces are repelling the Russian aggressor, but war will return as long as this collaborating Moscow church is here," said Mykhailo Omelian, a priest and spokesman for a separate branch of the Orthodox church governed entirely within Ukraine.
How to balance religious liberty against national security?
This accusation — that Orthodox believers loyal to the Moscow patriarch are a danger to national security — frightens some believers, who insist that their faith is nonpolitical.
Some told NPR they worry their church's banishment from parts of the monastery is only a beginning.
"We're living in a country that's not free and we can't be sure of our safety," said a man who would only identify himself as Vladislov. He told NPR he feared persecution if he provided his full name.
Nikiforov, the religious scholar who worships in a Moscow-aligned church, said he hopes Ukraine's government will find a way to balance these pressures.
He told NPR that government officials should arrest and prosecute anyone, including priests, found to be actively aiding Russia.
But he also said the country and its police should respect the faith of millions of Ukrainians who want to go on worshipping as they did before the full-scale invasion.
"It's impossible to close or to destroy the biggest religious organization in Ukraine," Nikiforov said. "People still will go to underground churches. They will go to [worship] in their rooms or their houses and this is very dangerous for the Ukrainian state."
As the war grinds on, Ukrainian society appears in most ways remarkably unified in opposition to Russia. But there are signs this fault line, where faith and patriotism collide, won't be resolved easily.
Metropolitan Pavel, one of the top leaders of Ukraine's Moscow-aligned church, is accused of secretly backing Russia's invasion. He remains under house arrest in Kyiv awaiting trial on charges of disloyalty.
Meanwhile at protests and religious services in Kyiv, many worshippers carry his photograph and describe him as a martyr of their faith.
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