Religion and Conflict, Religion and Politics

Drama at the Lavra: What’s at Stake?

Published on: April 10, 2023
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The decision of the Ukrainian government to terminate the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s (UOC) lease at the Kyiv Pechers’ka Lavra monastery complex has dominated Orthodox news in recent weeks. The events leading up to the decision have stirred up emotions, generated debate, and given birth to rumors on the state’s objectives. Dispassionate analysis is at the mercy of credible information, and it is in short supply.  Let us begin with a few facts that can contribute to understanding the situation.

First, the Lavra is not “church property.” It is a National and Historical Cultural Reserve and belongs to the Ukrainian people. As a national property, the Lavra is managed by the state.

Second, the UOC was on the property in accordance with a rent-free lease that did not have an expiration date. The state, as the landlord, has the right to terminate that lease, with the understanding that a hasty departure is stressful and inconvenient.  

Third, debates on renter’s vs. landlord’s rights are in the domain of Ukrainian law. We await rulings on appeals and clarifications from Ukraine’s constitutional court. Imposing the laws of other countries on the Ukrainian situation just distorts the situation further.

There are also a number of issues that need more clarification before we are able to analyze this situation rigorously. The first set of issues concerns the state’s motivations for terminating the lease. Ukraine’s security service (SBU) is investigating the UOC to identify collaborators. There is a great deal of discussion, accusation, and denial about collaboration. Patience is required to learn the actual facts. It is premature to declare Metropolitan Pavlo (Lebid) a collaborator until he has gone through the due process, regardless of the outrageous character of his statements and actions.

Spokespeople of the UOC have admitted that there are collaborators in their midst. This is a serious confession that requires more information. Members of their church may want to know if their leaders concealed information about collaboration.

Much of the discussion on social media concerns the circulation of names, people of interest who have appeared at the Lavra or seem to be connected with the UOC’s leadership. More information is needed on these connections before we can draw conclusions. Who were the middlemen, the agents and actors that created relationships leading to collaboration? I have encountered much discussion about the nature of such connections, which ultimately leads to oligarchs and direct orders taken from Moscow. Scholars and students await documentation of these connections.

The question I find myself asking about the drama at the Lavra: does the suspicion of collaboration cross a threshold that necessitated terminating the lease and asking the church to leave the premises? Are there discussions taking place that would permit the UOC to return to the premises with a new lease agreement? The state’s swift action generated strong emotional responses on all sides. What is the end-game for the state? Again, we need more information before we can conclude that the state is attempting to liquidate the UOC because of its long dependence on the Moscow Patriarchate. I acknowledge the drafting of legislation that would outlaw a religious organization with a center in Russia—this draft has not yet become law.

We also must acknowledge that the circulation of conspiracy theories is essentially misinformation. A number of weak arguments are circulating that are either completely fatuous or deliberately misleading. These include the frequently-quoted assertion that this is the outcome of a Biden-led conspiracy to destroy Russia and Orthodoxy. The origin of this assertion comes from the accusation that the US staged Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991 and has been pulling the strings all along. It is taken from the late Soviet playbook of blaming external actors for the actions of neighboring peoples. The Biden conspiracy is pure fantasy.

Emotional assertions that church leaders are either immune to criminal activity or entitled to special treatment are equally weak. The tendency to build a fortress around a leader to deflect blame only damages the foundations of the organization. In the case of the Orthodox Church, diplomatic immunity given to bishops is deliberately misleading and damaging to the church.

The UOC has asserted that it has been been the target of discrimination, especially since the war began. On the one hand, the UOC has executed a public campaign of victimization since the late Soviet era. I have found the campaign to be greatly exaggerated and misleading, until recently. This leads us to the other hand. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has documented cases of intimidation and discrimination against the UOC, especially since the war started. This is concerning, no matter what one believes about the Ukrainian church situation, especially if freedom of conscience and religious rights have been violated.

The public’s perception of the Lavra drama shows us what is at stake. Let us begin with public perception in Ukraine. Claiming that a vast majority of Ukrainians support this or that Orthodox group is unhelpful. Thanks to Cathy Wanner’s scholarship, we know that a high percentage of Orthodox Ukrainians self-identify as “just Orthodox,” meaning that they just aren’t into confessional politics. The UOC’s defensive posture—even more enhanced than it was before the war—suggests that the public is not convinced that they have separated from the ROC.

These two dynamics are important for a number of reasons. First, people who aren’t into confessional politics could be disturbed by the scenes at the Lavra. It always has been and remains a public shrine, a truly sacred place. The events taking place there do not look good, no matter the motivations. Current events have the potential to create new divisions among Ukrainians. It is difficult to see how these events can contribute to the healing of the separation of the UOC and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).

The matter of perception applies to people outside of Ukraine. This matter has the attention of the World Council of Churches. Millions of people in the world love the Pechers’ka Lavra and ask its founding fathers and saints to intercede for them. The world cares about what’s happening in Ukraine. The world has learned that the Lavra is a holy site. This scene is upsetting.

A calm, fair resolution of this crisis is in everyone’s best interest.  Many problems need to be resolved. Ukraine has to defend itself and cannot grant some special form of diplomatic immunity to people who could be collaborators. The people of the UOC should be able to gather for liturgy and prayer without fear of threats and intimidation. The actors who bear the most responsibility would help a great deal if they would tell the truth.

I am praying for a peaceful and just resolution to this crisis. Lord, have mercy.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

    Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

    Emil and Elfriede Jochum University Chair and Professor of Theology, Valparaiso University

    Nicholas Denysenko serves as Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair and concurrently as associate professor of theology. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota (1994), and his graduate degrees at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (M.Div., 2000) and The...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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