Kyiv's 1,000-year-old Orthodox Christian monastery was stormed by the Ukrainian security service and police to combat alleged "subversive actions by Russian special services."
The enormous Kyiv Pechersk Lavra complex – also known as the Kyiv Caves Monastery – is a Ukrainian cultural treasure. Its cathedral, churches, and other structures are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
It overlooks the right bank of the Dnieper River and is the seat of the Russian-backed wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.
The Ukrainian counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism service stated that the search was part of its "systematic effort to combat the subversive actions of Russian special services in Ukraine."
The intelligence service, known as the SBU for its Ukrainian initials, stated in a statement that the operation aimed to prevent the monastery from becoming "the center of the Russian world" and was conducted to investigate suspicions "about the use of the premises... for sheltering sabotage and reconnaissance groups, foreign citizens, and weapons storage." It was reported that a second site was being investigated 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of the capital in the Rivne region.
The concept of the "Russian world" is central to President Vladimir Putin's new foreign policy philosophy, which seeks to safeguard Russia's language, culture, and religion. It has been used to legitimize foreign involvement by conservative ideologues.
The SBU did not disclose the operation's outcome.
War deepens split
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin in Russia, has accused Ukrainian authorities of "waging war against the Russian Orthodox Church."
The search was regarded as "another piece in this chain of aggressive activities against Russian Orthodoxy."
Church authorities in Moscow have consistently expressed support for the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has described the battle as a "metaphysical struggle" between Moscow and the West. He blasted the search on Tuesday as an "act of intimidation."
The attack will further strain relations between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, which are already severe.
"Like many other examples of persecution of believers in Ukraine since 2014, this act of intimidation of believers is almost going to go unreported by the so-called international human rights community," said Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church.
The SBU operation follows a liturgy on November 12 at the Pechersk Lavra complex when a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was filmed discussing Russia's "waking."
The SBU stated that it was investigating the incident in one of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra's temples when chants honoring the "Russian world" were sung.
Last Friday, the SBU announced that it had prosecuted a prominent clergyman from the western Vinnytsia region for attempting to distribute pamphlets supporting Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate severed connections with the Russian Church in May due to the latter's backing for what Moscow refers to as a "special military operation."
According to Ukraine, the massive invasion constituted an unprovoked act of aggression.
In a study conducted in 2020 by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Centre, 34% of Ukrainians identified as members of the principal Orthodox Church of Ukraine, while 14% identified as members of the Moscow Patriarchate Church.
In 2019, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians globally granted Ukraine permission to organize a church independent of Moscow, effectively severing centuries of ecclesiastical relations between the two nations.