Ukraine is not ordering the monks from the pro-Russian Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) to leave a historic cave monastery complex in Kyiv, the country’s Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said Wednesday.
“We are not ordering the monks to leave the monastery,” Tkachenko told CNN’s Paula Newton. “We canceled the agreement, which was concluded between Yanukovych government in 2013 and Russian and Ukrainian branch of Russian church, which we believe is illegal. So, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily need to leave tomorrow or today.”
The Ukrainian government and security service said some members of the church are loyal to Moscow.
“We will not drag them out by their feet, we will not use force — they will leave on their own … [but] there can be no Russian church on the territory of our country,” said Oleksii Danilov, head of Ukraine’s National Security Council.
Wednesday marked the deadline for clergy from the UOC to leave the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. Hundreds of worshippers gathered to pray on their knees “for the saving of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra,” according to video and images shared by the church on social media Wednesday.
When asked about some Ukrainians reacting to the deadline order with disbelief and frustration, Tkachenko said: “First of all, the leaders of Ukrainian branch of Russian church did not call Ukrainians to come to Ukrainian army to defend Ukraine during this war [….] but they didn’t finish their relationship with Russian church […] they are a follower of Kremlin policy, of the policy of war.”
The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra is home to the UOC, a branch of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine that has been traditionally loyal to the leader of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill.
Kirill is a close ally of Vladimir Putin and a supporter of his war on Ukraine. In May 2022, the UOC cut ties with Moscow and declared “full independence.”
The agreement that permitted the UOC to occupy the historic cave monastery complex was terminated on March 10, and the UOC was instructed to leave the premises by March 29.
But the order shouldn’t be called an eviction, said Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council.
Danilov told Ukrainian television that “the Lavra is not a hotel, so eviction is not the right term.”
“This is the property of our state, the common property of citizens,” Danilov said. “As of today, this property should be vacated, according to the legal documents that exist today.”
During his daily video message Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky made comments about the eviction deadline.
“Today we have also taken a step to strengthen the spiritual independence of our state, to protect our society from the old and cynical Moscow manipulations of religion,” Zelensky said in his daily video message.
He added that his country “is the territory of the greatest religious freedom in our part of Europe.”
“This has been the case since 1991. It will always be so,” he said.