The SBU intelligence service says the raid was to investigate suspicions that Russia was using the complex for sabotage and to store weapons.
Ukraine’s security service and police have raided a 1,000-year-old Orthodox Christian monastery in Kyiv to counter alleged “subversive activities of Russian special services.”
The sprawling complex of Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (or Kiev Monastery of the Caves) is a Ukrainian cultural treasure and its cathedral, churches and other buildings are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Overlooking the right bank of the Dnieper River, it is also home to the Russian-backed wing of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and is under the Moscow Patriarchate.
Ukraine’s counterterrorism and intelligence service said the search was part of its “systematic work to counter the subversive activities of Russian special services in Ukraine.”
The statement from the intelligence service, known as SBU by its Ukrainian initials, said the operation was aimed at preventing the monastery from being used as “the center of the Russian world” and was carried out to investigate suspicions “about the use of the premises … to host sabotage and reconnaissance groups, foreign nationals, [and] weapons warehouse”. Another site is also being sought in the Rivne region, 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of the capital.
The concept of a “Russian world” is at the heart of President Vladimir Putin’s new foreign policy doctrine, which aims to protect Russia’s language, culture and religion. It has been used by conservative ideologues to justify intervention abroad.
The SBU did not give further details about the outcome of the operation.
The war deepens the split
In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukrainian authorities of “waging a war on the Russian Orthodox Church.”
He described the search “as one more link in the chain of these aggressive actions against Russian Orthodoxy.”
Moscow-based church authorities have repeatedly voiced their support for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, has described the war as a “metaphysical struggle” between Moscow and the West. He condemned Tuesday’s search as “an act of intimidation.”
The attack will further strain already strained relations between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians.
“Like many other cases of persecution of believers in Ukraine since 2014, this act of intimidation of believers will almost certainly go unnoticed by those who call themselves the international human rights community,” said Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church.
The SBU operation follows a November 12 service at the Pechersk Lavra complex where a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was filmed speaking about the “awakening” of Russia.
The SBU said it was “investigating the details of the incident that happened in one of the temples of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, where songs praising the ‘Russian world’ were sung.”
Last Friday, the SBU said it had charged a senior cleric in the western region of Vinnytsia with trying to distribute leaflets justifying Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
In May, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate severed its ties with the Russian Church over the latter’s support for what Moscow calls a “special military operation.”
Ukraine says the full-scale invasion was an unprovoked war of aggression.
A 2020 survey by the Razumkov Center in Kyiv found that 34% of Ukrainians identified as members of the main Ukrainian Orthodox Church, while 14% were members of the Moscow Patriarchate Church of Ukraine .
In 2019, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians around the world gave Ukraine permission to form a church independent of Moscow, largely ending centuries of religious ties between the two countries.