martedì 21 marzo 2023

Meeting of UOC Synod & Lithuanian visit of Bartholomew

(Peter Anderson)
The Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) met on Monday, March 20.  The official communique describing the results of the meeting can be read at (link) (English). During the course of the day, Metropolitan Onufry and members of the Synod traveled to the Office of President Zelensky to present personally to the President a written address and “to explain to him in person what the situation really is.”  (link) (English)  They waited in the street in front of the office for approximately two hours until an air raid siren caused them to seek shelter.  A video of their entire wait can be seen at the foregoing link.  A representative of the President’s Office had come to receive the written appeal, but the Synod members insisted on meeting with the President in person. (link) The Office of the President had noted that the President had not planned a meeting with the UOC on this day.  Of the ten members of the UOC present, three (Metropolitans Pavel, Anthony, and Luke) had recently been individually sanctioned by the Ukrainian government.  Personally, I believe that the chances of meeting with the President would have been much greater if only Metropolitan Onufry and a few others (not sanctioned individuals) had sought a private meeting with the President.  Instead, the UOC had broadcast the entire wait in front of the President’s office live on Facebook from the very beginning of the wait --  an indication that they sought to make a show of the entire event.  It appears that the group refused to give the written address to the representatives of the President's Office, but had rather posted it immediately on the UOC website. 

Later the same day in Moscow, RIA Novosti gave major coverage to these events.  See (link) ("Members of the synod of the UOC were demanded to leave the territory of Zelensky's office"); (link) (Patriarch's spokesperson states that "Zelensky, refusing to meet with members of the Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, once again demonstrated disrespect and contempt for millions of Ukrainian believers'')  One wonders what would have happened if a group of religious leaders had gathered unannounced in Red Square and requested to see President Putin immediately.

The full text of the written appeal to President Zelensky can be read at (link).  In the appeal, the UOC reaffirms: “we defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our State and strongly condemn Russian military aggression against Ukraine.”  The appeal points out that many parishioners of the UOC are now serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and that the UOC has done much to provide humanitarian and other aid.  The appeal then states that the UOC is experiencing “how the flames of opposition on religious grounds are being fanned in Ukraine.”  Specifically, the “illegal re-registration” of parishes, the bills pending in the Rada targeting the UOC, and finally the intent to evict the UOC community from the Kyiv Larva are mentioned.  With respect to the Kyiv Lavra, the appeal includes the following statement:

A special place among the revived shrines is occupied by the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.  Today, the Kyiv Lavra is a powerful religious, educational and administrative center, because more than two hundred monks perform their ministry on its territory, almost three hundred students of the academy and seminary study, and the administrative center of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is also located on its territory.  In addition, powerful work is constantly being carried out in the Lavra to provide humanitarian aid to everyone who needs it.  For every clergyman, monk and believer of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is a priceless shrine nurtured with love.  That is why the news about the unjustified deprivation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's right to stay in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra caused a great wave of indignation among our believers.  Every day we receive an increasing number of appeals about the need to protect our sanctuaries and our legal right to continue to protect them.

Lastly, there is an appeal to the President to protect religious freedom in Ukraine.  In general the appeal is conciliatory and does not contain such statements as the UOC will never leave the Kyiv Lavra.  The Synod also approved a letter “addressed faithful children of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the people of Ukraine.”  This letter has apparently not yet been posted.

The Synod at its meeting also removed Metropolitan Lazar of Simferopol and Crimea as a member of the Holy Synod.  As you recall, the Moscow Patriarchate assumed jurisdiction over his diocese (metropolia) last June.  President Zelensky suspended the Ukrainian citizenship of Lazar last December.  The reason given by the Synod for removing Lazar was “the absence of the possibility to take part in meetings of the Holy Synod.”

On Saturday, March 18, Metropolitan Epifany, primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), made a written address to the brothers of the Kyiv Lavra and to the public.  The full text of the address in English can be read at (link).  The address is essentially an appeal to the monks of the Lavra to reject the current leader of the Lavra and to accept Epifany as their head.  In the letter, Epifany uses the title, “Hiero-Archimandrite of the Kyiv-Pechersk Holy Dormition Lavra.”  Epifany apparently justifies the use of that title because the OCU legally registered several months ago a monastic community for the Lavra with an address across the street from the Lavra.  Technically, the current UOC head of the Lavra is Metropolitan Onufry.  However, as a practical matter, Metropolitan Pavel (Lebed) is the primate's vicar and the abbot of the Lavra.  Pavel is appointed to this position and has held it since 1994.  He is not elected by the monastic community.  He has been a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the UOC since 2011. (link) With respect to the current leader of the Lavra, Epifany states:

Both society in general and the brothers in particular are well aware of numerous examples of how, under the leadership of the current head of the monastery, the Lavra was consistently and deliberately turned into a center for promoting the ideology of “Russkiy Mir – Russian World”, the ideology that became the foundation and now serves as the justification for Russia’s war against Ukraine.  For this, that leader received and accepted an award from the Kremlin dictator, and the Russian leadership is now employing all its resources to prevent the liberation of the Ukrainian shrine from Moscow’s spiritual occupation…. We will use all our authority and all our resources to protect you from intimidation by the current head of the Lavra.

Epifany asserts that under him, the new abbot of the monastery will be one of its brothers who possesses appropriate abilities and has not tarnished himself by devotion to the Russian World.  He gives assurance that the brothers can retain their traditions and continue the use of the ancient Slavic language.  The brothers have previously expressed their support for the UOC, but no one really knows what each monk feels in his heart-of-hearts.  Metropolitan Pavel has been a very controversial figure, at least in the Ukrainian media.  Among the UOC metropolitans, he is one of those who has been closest to Moscow. 

Later on the same day, March 18, the DECR of the UOC issued a “commentary” on the address by Metropolitan Epifany.  The full text in English can be read at (link).  The commentary points out that the monks in January expressed their support for the UOC and its primate, Metropolitan Onufry.  It asserts that there was not and is not the “power of the Moscow Patriarchate” at the Lavra.  The commentary also discusses other points made by Epifany, but does mention the person of the current abbot.  It makes the following interesting observation:

The eviction of the monks from the Lavra provokes the Russians to further “protect the Orthodox,” giving them more and more arguments to justify their aggression against Ukraine, as the press secretary of the Russian president Dmitry Peskov recently stated.  He made it clear that “eviction of the monks from the Lavra justifies the goals of the special operation.”  Therefore, when Epifany declares that “the enemy is using this historical event to split Ukrainian unity and sow misunderstandings between us,” the question arises, who is actually giving the enemy reasons for this by such decisions and actions?

On March 18, Metropolitan Pavel stated in a video (110,000 views): “ We will not be evicted from the Lavra.” (link) Instructions have been distributed to the monks as to how to respond to a forceful eviction. (link) On the other hand, representatives of the government have stated that force will not be used.  In my opinion, it would be a complete public relations disaster for Zelensky if news programs throughout the world showed videos of monks being dragged from the Lavra by police.

On March 17, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) released a statement relating to the Lavra. (link) The statement reads in part: “It is unfortunate that such actions – including with regard to the UOC’s monastic community of the ancient Dormition Kiev Caves Lavra – appear to target the church itself.  The actions being taken against the UOC do appear to raise genuine questions with regard to respect for freedom of religion or belief.”  The General Secretary expresses the intention of the WCC to convene a roundtable of church leaders “to encourage dialogue for peace, including among its member churches and ecumenical partners in Russia, Ukraine and around the world.”

On a completely different subject, it has been announced that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will travel to Lithuania and will meet with Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė on Tuesday, March 21. (link) A very interesting article on the background of this visit can be read at (link) From the article, it appears that only a part of the visit relates to the five Lithuanian priests who were defrocked by the Moscow Patriarchate, who appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch, and who were then reinstated and brought under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.   A more important part relates to the pastoral care of 40,000 Ukrainian refugees in Lithuania.  Many are Orthodox and do not wish to attend services of the Moscow Patriarchate in Lithuania.  It appears that an agreement between Lithuania and the Ecumenical Patriarchate will be signed.  It will provide for the use by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the church of St. Nicholas in the former Lukiškės prison, now a cultural center and concert venue.  The Ecumenical Patriarchate will also be provided a location in Vilnius for an administration office.  Interestingly, Metropolitan Innokenty of Lithuania (Moscow Patriarchate) has not objected to the visit but has in fact welcomed the Ecumenical Patriarch to come to the Holy Spirit Monastery to venerate the holy martyrs of Vilnius. (link) According to Metropolitan Innokenty, his "welcome is a sign of honor and reverence for the elevated rank of the Head of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Orthodox faith of the members of His delegation.”

"Metropolitan Innokenty has also made a statement that “the process of gaining greater independence by the Lithuanian Orthodox Church is developing positively and consistently, in accordance with church canons.” (link) Referring to the decision of the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate (session of March 16, 2023; Journal Entry 2), the Metropolitan stated that “another step has been overcome on the way to our common goal” of becoming a “Self-Governing Church” of the Moscow Patriarchate.  At its March session, the Holy Synod decided that the appeal of the Lithuanian Church would be considered by the next Bishops’ Council which in turn would decide whether the appeal should be considered by the next Local Council.  The fact of the matter is that the next Bishops’ Council will probably not be held until after the end of the war in Ukraine and the next Local Council will probably not be held until it is necessary to elect a new patriarch.  Prior to 2013, a Bishops’ Council had the authority to grant “self-governing” status.  During this earlier period, the Orthodox Churches of Latvia and Estonia had obtained their “self-governing” status.  However, in 2013 the statute of the Russian Orthodox Church was amended so that only a Local Council could grant this status.  This greatly raised the bar to be surmounted and made it extremely difficult for a church to receive greater independence from Moscow.   Metropolitan Innokenty in giving his optimistic report did not mention this harsh reality.

Peter Anderson, Seattle USA