KYIV, Ukraine >> A Kyiv court ordered a leading priest to be put under house arrest Saturday after Ukraine’s top security agency said he was suspected of justifying Russian aggression, a criminal offense. It was the latest move in a bitter dispute over a famed Orthodox monastery.
Metropolitan Pavel is the abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, Ukraine’s most revered Orthodox site. He has denied the charges and resisted the authorities’ order to vacate the complex.
In a court hearing earlier in the day, the metropolitan said the claim by the Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, that he condoned Russia’s invasion was politically driven and that he had “never been on the side of aggression.”
After the court’s ruling, a monitoring bracelet was placed around his ankle, despite his objections that he has diabetes and should not wear it. The house arrest was to last two months.
“I am accepting this,” he said shortly before the bracelet was attached. “Christ was crucified on the cross, so why shouldn’t I accept this?”
Earlier in the week, he cursed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, threatening him with damnation.
The monks in the monastery belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has been accused of having links to Russia. The dispute surrounding the property, also known as the Monastery of the Caves, is part of a wider religious conflict that has unfolded in parallel with the war.
The Ukrainian government has cracked down on the UOC over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine.
Many Orthodox communities in Ukraine have cut their ties with the UOC and transitioned to the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which more than four years ago received recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
The UOC has insisted that it’s loyal to Ukraine and has denounced the Russian invasion. But Ukrainian security agencies say some in the church have maintained close ties with Moscow. The agencies have raided numerous holy sites of the church and then posted photos of rubles, Russian passports, and leaflets with messages from the Moscow patriarch as proof that some church officials have been loyal to Russia.
The government had ordered the monks to leave the compound by March 29. It claims they violated their lease by making alterations to the historic site, and other technical infractions. The monks rejected the claim as a pretext.
Dozens of UOC supporters gathered outside the monastery on Saturday, singing hymns in the rain. A smaller group of protesters also turned up, accusing the other side of sympathizing with Moscow.
“They wash the brains of people with Russian support, and they are very dangerous for Ukraine,” said Senia Kravchuk, a 38-year-old software developer from Kyiv. “They sing songs in support of Russia, and that’s horrible, here, in the center of Kyiv.”
Third-year seminary student David, 21, disagreed. Dressed in a priest’s robes and with a Ukrainian flag draped round his shoulders, he insisted the Lavra priests and residents were in no way pro-Russian. The state, he said, was trying to evict hundreds of people from Lavra without a court order.
“Look at me. I’m in priest’s clothes, with a Ukrainian flag and a cross around my neck. Could you say that I’m pro-Russian?” said David, who declined to give his last name because of the tensions surrounding the issue. “The priests are currently singing a Ukrainian hymn, and they’re being called pro-Russian. Can you believe it?”
In other news Saturday, Zelenskyy condemned the U.N. Security Council for allowing Russia to assume its presidency. The council’s 15 members each serve as president for a month, on a rotating basis.
Zelenskyy said Russian artillery had killed a 5-month-old boy in the town of Avdiivka on Friday, “one of hundreds of artillery attacks” each day, and added that Russia presiding over the Security Council “proves the complete bankruptcy of such institutions.”
Two civilians were reported killed in Russian shelling on Saturday, one each in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions, Ukrainian authorities there said.
Zelenskyy also said he spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday about defense cooperation.
While Ukraine is preparing for a counteroffensive expected later this spring, Russian forces have kept pressing their effort to capture the city of Bakhmut. Fighting in that stronghold in Ukraine’s east has dragged on for eight months.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a Saturday visit to the military headquarters overseeing the action in Ukraine that Russia’s defense industries have boosted production of ammunition “by several times.”
The U.K. Defense Ministry said in an analysis Saturday that the Russian offensive overseen by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, has fizzled.
“Gerasimov’s tenure has been characterized by an effort to launch a general winter offensive with the aim of extending Russian control over the whole of the Donbas region,” the British ministry said on Twitter. “Eighty days on, it is increasingly apparent that this project has failed.”
The ministry said Russian forces have made only marginal gains in the Donbas “at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties.” Russia was “largely squandering its temporary advantage in personnel” from a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists Putin ordered in the fall, the U.K. analysis said.
Associated Press writer Elena Becatoros in Kyiv contributed to this report.