In 2022, the Russian Federation began full-scale military aggression against Ukraine. There are already many thousands of victims in this terrible war, not only military, but also civilians.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church took the side of the Ukrainian people from the very beginning of the war. Already on February 24, that is, on the first day of the war, the Primate of our Church, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv and All Ukraine, condemned Russia’s military aggression and called for an immediate end to the war. Unfortunately, the Russian leadership did not heed this call. From the first days of the war, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church organized considerable aid to refugees, internally displaced persons, and the military. A profound aversion among the priests and laity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was caused by the position and sermons of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow during the terrible time of the military invasion of Ukraine.
As a result, on May 27, 2022, at the Council in Kyiv, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill and removed all provisions for canonical affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate from its statute. Thus, since May 27, our Church exists as an independent one.
Sadly, we must honestly admit that there have been cases of cooperation with Russian troops and occupation administrations among the clergy of our church. Without a doubt, all such cases must be thoroughly and impartially investigated, and the perpetrators must receive fair punishment according to Ukrainian law and in compliance with all procedural norms.
In recent days, the attention of Ukrainian society and, without exaggeration, of all world Orthodoxy is focused on what is happening in the Kyiv Caves Lavra. Every day there is more and more tension around this ancient monastery. I am writing these lines on March 30, but the situation is changing so rapidly that what I say today may be irrelevant tomorrow. Nevertheless, I will try to record the state of affairs at this point.
First of all, it is essential to be aware that Kyiv Caves Lavra is not merely a monastery. It is a vast architectural complex on the territory of which the monastery, the residence of the Kyiv metropolitans, the chancellery of the Kyiv metropolitanate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Synodal departments of our Church, and, finally, the Kyiv Theological Academy are located. Therefore, when discussing the problem of the Lavra, one must clearly distinguish between several different cases. In particular, the situation around the Kyiv Theological Academy, for which I serve as rector, is a specific case.
The current conflict around the Lavra is the result of a long chain of events that unfolded after the beginning of Russian military aggression against Ukraine. Since the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was self-governing with broad autonomy rights within the Moscow Patriarchate when the war began, it is understandable that we were blamed actively for administrative dependence on the aggressor country. In fact, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church broke its affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate shortly after the war began. At the Council of May 27, 2022, our Church declared complete separation. Yet in the fall of 2022, the government agencies of Ukraine, believing that we continued connection with Moscow, began a process to deprive us of our religious freedoms. A conflict over the Kyiv Caves Lavra became an essential part of this campaign.
As for the Kyiv Theological Academy, historically, it was located not in the Lavra but in the Kyiv-Bratsky Monastery. However, after the rise of the Soviets in Kyiv in the 1920s, both the Academy and the Bratskiy Monastery were closed. In 1989, when the opportunity arose for the seminary (and later the Academy) to be revived in Kyiv as part of the weakening of Soviet atheist policies, the institution could not reoccupy its historic buildings. The Soviet government had no plans to return these buildings to the Church. Therefore, from 1989 the Kyiv Theological Schools were located in the Kyiv Caves Lavra. In 1990 the seminary was given its present facilities: buildings no. 63 and no. 64. And they were given to the seminary in an unsound condition. In the Academy archives, some pictures were made in 1990. There you can see clearly cracked walls and rotten floors in these buildings.
These buildings were repaired with funding provided by the Church and adapted for the educational process. Later, two more buildings (no. 55 and no. 60) were given to the Academy and also underwent significant repairs. The student dormitories were located there.
Nowadays, the Kyiv Theological Academy is the leading educational institution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, training candidates for the priesthood and the staff of church institutions. Over 250 students are enrolled full-time at the Academy at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. More than 500 students study by correspondence. The full-time students live in the Lavra dormitories. Accommodations and meals are free for all full-time students.
The Academy has a library and a small museum with various exciting exhibits. We have a gym, a computer lab, and a medical unit. The Academy is a full-fledged educational complex! And the Academy has been in the Lavra territory for over thirty years. During that time, the Academy has educated thousands of priests and dozens of bishops. The Academy has developed its own educational and scientific traditions.
And now all of this is under significant threat. What happened?
All the buildings on Lavra’s territory were confiscated from the church back in Soviet times. The state still owns them, and they are part of the National Historical and Cultural Reserve, which operates on the territory of Lavra.
Since the late 1980s, about seventy buildings on the territory of the Lavra have been gradually transferred for use by the church. Since the National Reserve could never adequately maintain this massive architectural ensemble, as a rule, the buildings were handed over to the church in a miserable condition. The church took care of these buildings for many years, making all the necessary repairs. The requirements of the lease have changed several times over the past thirty years. The previous Kyiv Caves Lavra and the Reserve agreement was signed in 2013. It stipulated that the churches and various buildings would be given to the church free of charge and for an indefinite period.
But in December 2022, when relations between the state and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church began to degenerate, the first steps toward canceling the 2013 agreement were initiated. On December 23 of last year, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine created an intra-agency working group mandated to inspect all buildings on the territory of Kyiv Caves Lavra that were transferred to the church under the agreement of 2013. This working group concluded that there were significant violations in the use of the churches and other buildings. On this basis, the Reserve declared its intention to terminate the agreement with the Lavra effective from March 29, 2023, and demanded that the Church institutions leave all the buildings on the territory of the Lavra. This also applies to the facilities of the Kyiv Theological Academy. At the same time, the Academy did not receive any official notices that any violations of the lease regulations were found in our buildings. Even today, we have yet to receive such information from the Reserve.
Now the state demands from us in an ultimatum to release the buildings where the Academy has been situated for more than thirty years. If this eviction takes place (and now, alas, all this is going to happen), the leading educational institution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has more than 400 years of history, would simply cease to exist.
However, the Academy has nowhere to move. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has no buildings that could serve as equivalent replacements. Needless to say, the state offers us nothing in return. Therefore, now the Academy is on the verge of extinction. I sincerely wish I were mistaken, but all indications are that the liquidation of the Academy is one of the state’s goals.
It is clear that no ecclesiastical structure can stand firmly on its feet without a well-established system for the training of pastors. And if the state set out to get rid of our church, then it makes sense to get rid of its educational center as well.
As trivial as it may sound, Ukraine today is undergoing a challenging test on democracy. The Ukrainian people are not only defending their land on the battlefield but must learn to protect the rights and freedoms of every citizen. If Ukraine chooses the European vector of development, the state must honor its agreement and must not give preference to one confession while blatantly excluding the other, no matter what the situation. We must not become what we hate.
To be clear, if any bishop, priest, or monk of our Church has committed a crime, he must be punished according to the law. But in my deep conviction, it is unacceptable to speak of the collective responsibility of the entire Church for the crimes of its individual members. The very notion of “collective guilt” is an unmistakable echo of Soviet mentality, with its obsession to find the social group enemy and the “enemies of the people.”
I do not give up hope that Ukraine will pass this test and not become a replica of the enemy it now fights.
I hope the Kyiv Theological School will not suffer its third liquidation in a century. Therefore, I ask the international academic community to consider the situation with an open mind, discarding caricatures and generalizations. Today our Academy truly needs the support of the global academic community and practical assistance in the legal framework.
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