KYIV, Ukraine — In a bitter dispute over a famed Orthodox monastery, Ukraine’s top security agency notified a leading priest on Saturday that he was suspected of justifying Russia’s aggression, a criminal offense,
Metropolitan Pavel, the abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, Ukraine’s most revered Orthodox site, has resisted the authorities’ order to vacate the complex. Earlier in the week, he cursed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, threatening him with damnation.
During a court hearing in the Ukrainian capital, the metropolitan rejected the claim by the Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, that he condoned Russia’s invasion. Pavel described the accusations against him as politically driven.
SBU agents raided his residence, and prosecutors asked the court to put him under house arrest pending the investigation. The hearing Saturday was adjourned until Monday after the metropolitan said he was feeling unwell.
The monks in the monastery belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has been accused of having links to Russia. The dispute surrounding the property, also known as the Monastery of the Caves, is part of a wider religious conflict that has unfolded in parallel with the war.
The Ukrainian government has cracked down on the UOC over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine.
PHOTOS: Ukrainian cleric in court amid dispute over Kyiv monastery
The UOC has insisted that it’s loyal to Ukraine and has denounced the Russian invasion from the start. But Ukrainian security agencies say some in the church have maintained close ties with Moscow. The agencies have raided numerous holy sites of the church and then posted photos of rubles, Russian passports, and leaflets with messages from the Moscow patriarch as proof that some church officials have been loyal to Russia.
The monks have resisted a government order to leave the compound by March 29. The government claims that the monks violated their lease by making alterations to the historic site and other technical infractions. The monks rejected the claim as a pretext.
Dozens of UOC supporters gathered outside the monastery on Saturday, singing hymns in the rain. A smaller group of protesters also turned up, accusing the other side of sympathizing with Moscow.
“They wash the brains of people with Russian support, and they are very dangerous for Ukraine,” said Senia Kravchuk, a 38-year-old software developer from Kyiv. “They sing songs in support of Russia, and that’s horrible, here, in the center of Kyiv.”
Third-year seminary student David, 21, disagreed. Dressed in a priest’s robes and with a Ukrainian flag draped round his shoulders, he insisted the Lavra priests and residents were in no way pro-Russian. The state, he said, was trying to evict hundreds of people from Lavra without a court order.
“Look at me. I’m in priest’s clothes, with a Ukrainian flag and a cross around my neck. Could you say that I’m pro-Russian?” said David, who declined to give his last name because of the tensions surrounding the issue. “The priests are currently singing a Ukrainian hymn, and they’re being called pro-Russian. Can you believe it?”
Many Orthodox communities in Ukraine have cut their ties with the UOC and transitioned to the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which more than four years ago received recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Bartholomew I is considered the first among equals among the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Patriarch Kirill and most other Orthodox patriarchs have refused to accept his decision authorizing the second Ukrainian church.
In other news Saturday, Zelenskyy said he spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron to brief him on the battlefield situation and discuss defense cooperation.
While Ukraine is preparing for a counteroffensive expected later this spring, Russian forces have kept pressing their effort to capture the city of Bakhmut. The Ukrainian stronghold in the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east has been the focus of a ferocious battle that has dragged on for eight months.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a Saturday visit to the military headquarters overseeing the action in Ukraine that Russia’s defense industries have boosted production of ammunition “by several times.” Russian’s government previously acknowledged ammunition shortages.
Two civilians were reported killed in Russian shelling on Saturday, one each in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions, Ukrainian authorities there said.
The U.K. Defense Ministry said in its latest analysis Saturday that the Russian offensive personally overseen by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, has fizzled.
“Gerasimov’s tenure has been characterized by an effort to launch a general winter offensive with the aim of extending Russian control over the whole of the Donbas region,” the British ministry said on Twitter. “Eighty days on, it is increasingly apparent that this project has failed.”
As evidence, the ministry said that “on several axes across the Donbas front, Russian forces have made only marginal gains at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties.”
With the losses, the Russian military was “largely squandering its temporary advantage in personnel” from a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists Putin ordered in the fall, according to the U.K. analysis.
It noted that Gerasimov, who has been in his job for 10 years, “is pushing the limits of how far Russia’s political leadership will tolerate failure.”
The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, meanwhile, mocked a new edition of Moscow’s foreign policy doctrine published Friday that described the Russian policy as “peaceful, open, predictable, consistent, pragmatic and based on respect for universally recognized principles and norms of international law.”
“April Fool’s Day is TOMORROW,” the Foreign Office tweeted late Friday.