KIEV, Ukraine — The rough-looking young men brought clubs and brass knuckles to the Pechersk Monastery in Kiev, one of Orthodox Christianity’s most important pilgrimage sites, apparently seeking to disrupt worship. Police spread-eagled them against a wall decorated in faded centuries-old frescos of solemn saints, then hauled them away.
On the other side of the dispute, at a small church in the center of Kiev, a dozen men organized round-the-clock guard duty, worried that nationalist radicals might make their third attempt in a year to seize the place of worship.
The incidents a week ago underline the tensions in Ukraine as it attempts to establish a new nationalist Orthodox church, without ties to Russia. The planned religious rupture from the Russian Orthodox Church is a potent — possibly explosive — mix of politics, religious faith and national identity.
The imminent creation of the new Ukrainian church raises deep concerns about what will happen to the approximately 12,000 churches in Ukraine that are now under the Moscow Patriarchate.
“The question of what will happen to the property of the Orthodox churches existing in Ukraine after the emergence of a single local church is key and could be one of the most painful” issues of the Orthodox split, said Volodymyr Fesenko, an analyst at the Ukrainian think-tank Penta.
Since the late 1600s, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine had been a wing of the Russian Orthodox Church rather than ecclesiastically independent — or “autocephalous.” Some Ukrainians chafed at that arrangement.
Schismatic churches formed under their own Ukrainian leaders, but they were not recognized as canonical by any Orthodox church in the world.
That is about to change.
The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople recently claimed to remove an anathema against the schismatic Ukrainian church leaders, a major step toward trying to create a Ukrainian church with no ties to the Moscow Patriarchate.
The Russian Orthodox Church, strongly disagreeing the move, announced it would no longer remain in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch. It also fears it will lose deeply cherished sites including the Pechersk Monastery, the seat of the church’s Ukrainian branch and a major tourist destination renowned for its richly decorated churches and labyrinthine caves holding the relics of holy men.
It’s not exactly clear when independence will be allegedly granted. The two schismatic Ukrainian churches must meet to decide who will be the patriarch of the unified church. Once that decision is made, Constantinople is expected to grant the independence order.
In recent years, about 50 churches in Ukraine that were under the Moscow Patriarchate have been forcibly seized and transferred to the Kiev Patriarchate, according to Metropolitan Antony Pakanich of the Moscow-loyal Ukrainian Church.
“People have been forcibly dragged out of our churches, the locks have been sawed off,” he told The Associated Press. “People in camouflage and balaclavas, with insignia of radical organizations, have come and beat our believers and priests.”
Some believers say they will forcefully defend their right to stay.
“The creation of a local church will push for a new round of confrontation … we, who are supporters of canonical Orthodoxy, will defend our interests here,” said Ilya Bogoslovsky, a 28-year-old who came with his wife and daughter for a service at the chapel of the Tithes Monastery, where the
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