‘We don’t want people to know’: Moscow-aligned Easter service in Kyiv | Ukraine

AAs Ukraine celebrated the climax of the Orthodox year, the capital’s Pechersk Lavra – a monastic complex that has allegiance to the Patriarch of Moscow – held an Easter service under unusually tense circumstances.

Normally, streets across Ukraine on the eve of Easter Sunday would be dotted with Orthodox believers heading to church. Easter services in the Orthodox world begin the night before and end at dawn on Sunday – to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

But in wartime Ukraine, every city is subject to strict curfews that usually start mid-evening and last until early morning.

To allow Easter celebrations, some churches in kyiv, including the Pechersk Lavra, protected by Unesco, have been authorized to organize locks. Instead of coming and going as they pleased, believers had to stay inside the historic walled complex from 11 p.m. on Saturday until 5 a.m. on Sunday.

Pechersk Lavra remained aligned with the Patriarch of Moscow after an independence vote in 2018. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

For more than 400 years, the only Orthodox Church in Ukraine recognized by Constantinople was the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, aligned with the Patriarch of Moscow. But in 2018, after decades of campaigning, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, considered the primary authority for the world’s 300 million Orthodox faithful, granted Ukraine the right to an independent church.

Hundreds of Ukrainian parishes voted to change, although thousands more remained with the Patriarch of Moscow. Major historical sites around Ukraine, the cradle of Eastern European Orthodoxy, are now controlled by priests of different affiliations.

The Pechersk Lavra is the one that remained in the hands of the Patriarch of Moscow (the 1000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral is controlled by the Patriarch of kyiv), and until recently Ukrainian intelligence services considered its leaders religious as agents of the Kremlin for their links with Moscow. The clerics now call themselves independent of Moscow and have come out against “Russia’s War Against Ukraine”, gain support advisers to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

At the invitation of one of Pechersk Lavra’s leading priests, the Guardian was ushered into the hand-painted interior of the 18th-century Trapezniy Church – one of the 12 churches of the monastery, which stands on the shores of kyiv – for its night service.

People seated on a pew in church, with women wearing headscarves.
Worshipers had to stay inside the Trapezniy Church for six hours due to the wartime curfew. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

In the main body of the church, believers kept their places for a long night around the altar. At the other end of the church, a line of believers had formed for confession, which in Orthodoxy is achieved by kissing an icon with a priest standing over the believer, covering the believer’s head with his stole. The service was broadcast live for those unable to attend.

But less than an hour later, the priests at the altar stopped chanting to issue an unscheduled warning: “Photography is prohibited, whoever is photographing please stop now.” Metropolitan Cleric Pavel, who led the Easter service and whom the Ukrainian authorities investigated accused of stirring up religious hatred, said we had to leave.

“You have to understand the [Ukrainian] the ministry of culture won’t like it if there are a lot of people here,” a deputy cleric said. “We don’t want them to close the Laura.”

People in front of the painting of Jesus on the crucifix.
The clerics of the Pechersk Lavra now say they are independent of Moscow and have spoken out against “Russia’s war against Ukraine”. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

The official live broadcast was allowed because church video cameras were positioned to obscure the number of believers, the aide said.

“We don’t want anyone to know [how many came],” he said. Showing the live broadcast of a lockdown service organized by the “others” at the independent Ukrainian Mykhailivsky Cathedral in Kyiv, he pointed out that there were fewer people present.

“Nobody wants to be photographed,” said a second aide, who lamented the fact that before the war hundreds of journalists attended the Easter service.

The first aide said the Ministry of Culture had limited the number of believers who could attend the lockdown and that even by holding the services they were breaking the law – however, a priest at Mykhailivsky Cathedral who the Guardian spoke to said there were no such restrictions.

“We live in a right-wing state,” the first aide said. “The president is supporting us but there are people who want to take the Lavra away from us – physically take it away from us.”

People seated on a pew in church, with women wearing headscarves.
The service was broadcast live, although clerics preferred an opaque depiction of the number of worshipers in attendance. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

When asked who he was talking about, he named the far-right Ukrainian battalion Right Sector, which formed to fight Russian-backed separatists in 2014. Since then, Kremlin propaganda has exaggerated the power and popularity of the group in Ukraine and repeatedly accused the Ukrainians who came against Moscow of being members of the right sector. “This war is a mistake,” the aide said.

Vladimir Putin used Moscow’s historic dominance over churches in Ukraine as a key argument for Russia’s right to control the country and was angered when kyiv gained independence. Since the full-scale invasion of Russia, the patriarch of moscowKirill, described it as a holy war and was a strong supporter of the work of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

But during a Easter Saturday service, Patriarch Kirill was noticeably more restrained. He appears to have abandoned his pro-violence stance and called for an end to the conflict – although he did not criticize it.

The Metropolitans’ aides said it was not their place to comment on Patriarch Kirill’s position. “We have helped many refugees – we have hosted them in our dormitory in Lavra. Ten of our priests are currently traveling to Mariupol to oversee the funeral,” said one.

“The Metropolitan Onufriy [the head representative in Kyiv of the Moscow Patriarch Church in Ukraine] called it Russian aggression, but some people in the authorities put us in a box.

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