Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Ukraine’s counterintelligence service, police officers and the country’s National Guard raided one of the most famous Orthodox Christian sites in the capital Kyiv on Tuesday after a priest spoke positively about Russia – Ukraine’s invader – during a service.
The search of the Pechersk Lavra monastery complex was highly unusual. Its cathedral, churches and other buildings are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Overlooking the right bank of the Dnieper, it has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries.
The search, motivated by the security service’s apparent suspicions of possible Russian covert operations at the complex, revealed deep fissures in Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, exacerbated by the nine-month Russian invasion.
Hundreds of Ukrainian Orthodox congregations have severed their ties with the Moscow-ruled branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has long been one of the main sources of Russian influence and power in Ukraine. They switched to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
But others remain loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate. The monastery complex Pechersk Lavra is part of this church. An Associated Press journalist on Tuesday saw dozens of officers conducting checks both inside and outside the site, which remained open to visitors who showed their ID.
Ukraine’s counterintelligence and counterterrorism service said the search was part of its “systematic work to counter the subversive activities of Russian special services in Ukraine.”
Due to the Russian invasion, “the risk of committing terrorist attacks, sabotage and kidnappings is increasing, especially in places with a large concentration of citizens,” according to a statement from the service, known in Ukrainian by its initials SBU.
It said officers were searching buildings for hidden weapons or foreign citizens and potential intelligence agencies. Another location was also being searched in the Rivne region, 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of Kyiv.
In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the Ukrainian authorities of “waging a war against the Russian Orthodox Church.”
He described the raid as “another link in the chain of these aggressive actions against Russian orthodoxy”.
Moscow-based church authorities have repeatedly expressed 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 SBU operation follows a Nov. 12 church service at the Pechersk Lavra complex, where a Ukrainian Orthodox priest was filmed speaking about Russia’s “awakening.”
The SBU said it was investigating “the details of the incident that took place in one of the temples of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra – where songs praising the ‘Russian world’ were sung.”
“Those who are waiting for the ‘awakening of Mother Rus’ in the conditions of a full-scale war against Ukraine unleashed by Russia should understand that this harms the security and interests of Ukraine and our citizens. And we will not allow such manifestations,” said the head of the SBU Vasyl Maliuk at the time.
The SBU then initiated criminal proceedings because propaganda had been heard in the church “praising the ‘Russian world'”.
AP journalist Inna Varenytsia in Kyiv contributed.