Ukraine accuses top Ukrainian vicar as Russia strikes eastern Ukraine
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s security services on Saturday accused a senior Orthodox Christian leader of supporting Russia’s war effort and placed him under house arrest, in a sharp escalation of a dispute over loyalty to the State which has deeply divided the dominant religion of the country.
The indictment against the vicar, Pavlo Lebid, came as Russian forces pounded targets along the front line in eastern Ukraine, killing at least five civilians. After several months of fierce fighting, however, Moscow is struggling to make a decisive breakthrough.
Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Russia last year, Ukraine has worked to eliminate Moscow’s influence on religious matters and eliminate perceived clerical support for the Kremlin. Abbot of the revered Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery, Mr Lebid is a senior official of one of Ukraine’s main Orthodox churches, a branch linked to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, whose leader has spoken out strongly in favor of President Vladimir V. Putin. decision to invade Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians say Mr Lebid’s church has not clearly stated its position on the dispute and is therefore compromised. Ukrainian security services went further, describing the Russian-aligned patriarchy as an incubator of pro-Russian sentiment and as infiltrated by priests and monks who directly aided Moscow in the war.
Since the start of the war, agents have arrested dozens of priests and monks, accusing them of spying for the Kremlin and even helping lead Russian airstrikes. Church leaders have said the behavior of individual priests does not reflect its overall position.
On Saturday, Ukrainian security services said they searched Mr Lebid’s house before he appeared in a court in the Ukrainian capital charged with making statements justifying the invasion of Moscow. The security service detailed the allegations in a statement posted on the Telegram messaging app and posted clips on its YouTube channel which it said showed his phone conversations and sermons that supported the accusation.
In another clip posted to Twitter and posted on the Ukrainska Pravda website, Mr Lebid appeared in court wearing his black office robe and denied the charge.
“I’ve never been on the aggressive side,” he said. “I am against aggression. And now I’m in Ukraine. This is my land. The court placed him under house arrest until May 30, according to the Ukrainska Pravda website.
Many Ukrainians argue that the war is more than territorial aggression, seeing it as part of a larger struggle to escape Moscow’s political, cultural and linguistic domination and to establish the country’s independence once and for all. .
As part of this campaign, an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Moscow was established in 2019. Since the invasion, Ukrainian authorities have taken steps to have this church take full control of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, or monastery. caves, which to this day has been partly controlled by Mr. Lebid’s branch, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
But Mr Lebid this week defied an eviction order from Ukrainian authorities, leading to a stalemate at the monastery, which is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Valentina, who joined a demonstration in support of Mr. Lebid’s clerics on Thursday, said she was insulted by the authorities’ moves, which seemed to her to question her patriotism as a Ukrainian, given that her husband had spent the past year on the front line.
“We mothers are all here to pray for our sons and husbands who are fighting in the war,” she said as she joined dozens of women who had gathered at the gates of the monastery to protest against the government deportation order. She asked not to be identified out of fear for her safety in the current climate.
“The apocalypse will begin in Ukraine if our church is removed,” she said Thursday as she emerged from a dawn service. “The sky will close and there will be no rain. There will be famine and half of kyiv will drown in the waters of the Dnipro.
His sentiments reflected the layers of a dispute over a church deeply rooted in Ukrainian society and the different ways worshipers and church leaders experienced it.
In addition to the argument that the branch of the church to which Mr Lebid belongs is compromised, many Ukrainians say it promotes a vision of cultural unity with Russia that underlies the Kremlin’s justification for its invasion – and which Ukraine rejects.
It is Putin’s “last cultural outpost in Ukraine that helps him influence Ukrainian citizens,” Kyiv-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church spokesman Mykhailo Omelian said in an interview this week. week. “By liberating Lavra, we feel the same joy we felt after liberating Ukrainian cities from Russian occupation.”
But for Valentina and many other followers, membership is perfectly compatible with their patriotism, and such considerations are far behind the spiritual comfort the church provides.
The Kremlin, for its part, has characterized Ukraine’s stance on the Moscow-aligned church as evidence of its hypocrisy in its claims for democratic tolerance. On Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced Mr Lebid’s arrest as an April Fool’s joke that had “gone too far”, leading to a “total crackdown” on the church by Ukrainian authorities.
As the dispute over the church escalated, the war, now in its 14th month, continued to erupt as Ukraine repelled 70 Russian attacks in the past 24 hours on its eastern front, the report said. Army General Staff in its morning update.
The town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, under attack since the early days of last February’s invasion, suffered the brunt of the attacks, but fighting also raged in Bakhmut, where both sides suffered heavy losses for months, and in the town of Marinka.
A deadly attack in Avdiivka on Friday underscored the painful toll.
“A 5-month-old boy and his grandmother were killed, while the child’s mother and father were injured,” regional military administration chief Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a message on Telegram. . The family had refused to evacuate before the attack, Mr Kyrylenko added.
After Russian forces failed to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kiev a year ago, Mr Putin has made capturing the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine his main military objective . In recent weeks, Russian forces have intensified their attacks in the region as part of a new offensive push.
But Britain’s Defense Intelligence Agency said on Saturday that “there is growing evidence that this project has failed.”
More than a year after the start of the war, the Russian army suffered huge losses – up to 200,000 soldiers killed or wounded, according to Western officials, and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles destroyed or captured by Ukraine. Military analysts and Ukrainian officials say Russia is also short of artillery shells and cruise missiles and struggling to replenish its stockpiles due to Western sanctions. Many of its most elite, best-trained and experienced units were decimated.
On Saturday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu met with generals involved in Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine to discuss supplying arms to troops, the ministry said in a statement. Mr Shoigu said “steps are being taken to increase” the supply of ammunition, the statement added.
Ukraine is expected to launch its own counteroffensive in the coming weeks, bolstered by new weapons supplied by the United States and other allies. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hinted at what was to come in his overnight speech, sounding a note of defiance.
“We are preparing our next steps, our active actions. We are preparing the approach of our victory, ”he said on Friday evening. “We will not leave a single trace of Russia on our land.”
The continued assaults coincided with Russia assuming the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in April for the first time since February 2022, when it began the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The presidency is largely a ceremonial role that rotates monthly among its 15 members based on alphabetical order.
But Ukraine has expressed outrage at Russia’s takeover given its attacks on Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure, and in light of the arrest warrant issued this month by the International Criminal Court. accusing Mr. Putin of war crimes. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, called it “a slap in the face of the international community”. Andriy Yermak, one of Mr Zelensky’s top advisers, said the development dealt “another symbolic blow to the rules-based system of international relations”.
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed report.