In my opinion, as an Eastern Orthodox believer, the key fact that journalists need to understand is that Slavic Orthodoxy is older than the creation of the modern nations that are involved in this war. Also, the Holy Dormition-Kiev Caves Lavra plays a major role in this narrative.
The great monastery of the Kiev caves was founded in 1051. How important is this holy site? In the podcast, I argued that it can be seen as the Jerusalem of Slavic Orthodoxy. Long before the creation of the modern Russian state, Moscow was the city of power, St. Petersburg the city of culture and Kiev was the heart of Slavic Orthodoxy.
Now, the Ukrainian government is poised to drive the monks out of the monastery, claiming that — as a body — they are agents of Putin. The reality is much more complex than that.
Readers may want to look at the details my “On Religion” column with this headline: “Centuries of ‘Holy Rus’ church history behind the bitter Orthodox schism in Ukraine.” Also, see this very fair-minded essay published by the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace: “Why the Russian Orthodox Church Supports the War in Ukraine.”
The key is the following information about the historic Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is currently under attack by the Ukrainian government. The monks of the Kiev Caves are part of this older church body. This large Orthodox church is, yes, linked to Moscow by canon law and history. However, since the invasion its leaders have done everything they can, within Orthodox canon law, to cut their ties to the larger Russian Orthodox Church.
Read the following carefully (I added one brief spot of bold type):
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 left all the constituent entities in the complex structure of the ROC facing a dilemma: speak out against Patriarch Kirill for his support of the war, or remain loyal to the church leadership and risk becoming seen as Kremlin agents in their own countries, with all the ensuing legal and reputational ramifications. As far as it is known, the Moscow Patriarchate has not offered any recommendations to its churches on this matter.
Under church law, these constituent churches cannot independently separate from the ROC: they would be considered schismatics. In theory, they can arrange with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople — the “first among equals” of the Eastern Orthodox Church — to be recognized as separate entities, but that’s far easier said than done, especially in countries where parallel jurisdictions already exist, such as Estonia and Moldova.
It is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), of course, that finds itself in the most difficult situation. It has declared independence from the ROC, but has failed to formalize the process under canon law. Several senior clergymen have left Ukraine for Russia, and others are under investigation for treason in Ukraine, but overall, the UOC has condemned the war and stopped praying for Patriarch Kirill as its primate.
The words “in theory” are crucial. Truth is, the ecumenical patriarch cannot act unilaterally. The leaders of the besieged Ukrainian Orthodox Church — trapped between Moscow and the desires of the America-European Union alliance (backing the current Ukrainian government) — remain in Communion with most of the world’s Orthodox leaders.
What this church needs is time and global Orthodox support, as it works to completely cut its few remaining links to Moscow.
This is the context for the current police action against the monks of the Kiev Caves.
Newsrooms in America and Europe see this as a battle between Putin and Ukraine. As always, who cares about messy religious details? To see this journalism malpractice in action, consider a bizarre New York Times piece that ran the other day with this headline: “The Monks in the Middle of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
This was not a conventional news report, but more of a slide show of photos accompanied by a short article running underneath the images. I cannot, of course, show the copyrighted photos, but we can walk through the text.
Monks from a 1,000-year-old monastery in Kyiv performed an ancient ritual this month honoring their predecessors. But a war-fueled rift between the living clerics loyal to Moscow and those loyal to Kyiv is coming to a head.
Once again, the rift is not “war fueled,” it has existed for decades — tied to earlier schisms from the historic Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Also, the simplistic “loyal to Moscow” riff — repeated with variations throughout the Times text — indicates that the newspaper’s editors have taken zero time or effort to follow the actions of Metropolitan Onuphry and his church for the past year or more (as briefly discussed in the Carnegie essay).
Meanwhile, what does “loyal to Kyiv” mean? Metropolitan Onuphry is a native Ukrainian, as are the overwhelming majority of his priests and monks. He has condemned the Russian invasion since Day 1, calling Putin’s action “a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy. Such a war has no justification either from God or from people.”
Later in the piece, after several more “loyal to Moscow” bytes, there is this:
Dozens of monks around Ukraine from the Moscow sect have been arrested, accused of spying for the Kremlin and even directing Russian air strikes.
“The fake and godless spirit of the ‘Russian world’ is leaving the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra,” Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of the church loyal to Kyiv, pictured above, said during a service early this year.
Sect? So the historic Ukrainian church is no longer truly Christian? Also, charges have been filed against some UOC priests — out of 10,000-plus clergy — and the UOC leadership has acknowledged some abuses, while also calling for clear, public discussions of the evidence. In particular, it’s important to note that pre-invasion opposition to the Ukrainian leadership’s new, and in UOC eyes schismatic, Orthodox Church of Ukraine is not the same thing as support for Russian violence.
By the way: Note that the text for this photo says that it shows “Metropolitan Epiphanius, the head of the church loyal to Kyiv.” Actually, this is a photo of Metropolitan Onuphry, surrounded by clergy and members of the older Ukrainian church. Correction please?
President Volodymyr Zelenksy has said the expulsions are needed for “spiritual independence.”
But Metropolitan Pavlo Lebid, the head of the church loyal to Moscow in Ukraine, said that his members had no intention of leaving the monastery.
“Spiritual independence”? In Orthodox law, that is an issue that will require acceptance by the world’s Orthodox patriarchs and bishops.
Oh, and “Metropolitan Pavlo Lebid, the head of the church loyal to Moscow in Ukraine”? Actually, he is the leader of the Kiev Caves monks — not the “church loyal to Moscow.” The UOC’s leader is Metropolitan Onuphry. Another correction, please?
The Kremlin has seized on the schism to bolster its propaganda campaign at home, saying that Kyiv’s crackdown is an assault on religious freedom.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s press secretary, said this month, “This proves and shows once again that everything we are doing is absolutely right.”
Actually, many religious leaders — see statements by Pope Francis and the World Council of Churches — are concerned about the government’s actions against the Lavra. Journalists may also want to see what has been said by other Orthodox prelates.
Oh, and that statement by the Kremlin? It would be condemned by Orthodox leaders around the world, including (and especially by) Metropolitan Onuphry and the leaders of the historic Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
This error-stricken Times sort-of article is an embarrassment, serving basically as a press release for the current Ukrainian government, the U.S. State Department, the European Union and NATO. The late, great editor and foreign correspondent Abe Rosenthal — who knew a thing or two about post-Communist puzzles — would be appalled.
Oh, and there is one other player in this tragic drama who would be pleased with the obvious bias in this Times report — Vladimir Putin. It serves his purposes, from the first line to the last, mistake after mistake.