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Ukraine investigates Orthodox religious leader for pro-Russian views

Pavel Lebed, the abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery and Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, attends a court hearing in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday, where he was accused of being linked to Russia. Photo by Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE
Pavel Lebed, the abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery and Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, attends a court hearing in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday, where he was accused of being linked to Russia. Photo by Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE

April 1 (UPI) -- Ukrainian authorities said Saturday they are investigating the leader of the country's most important monastery for allegedly seeking to justify Russia's invasion.

An Orthodox church leader with ties to Moscow has been placed under house arrest by officials in Ukraine amid the war with Russia.

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Metropolitan Pavlo, the vicar of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, has been ordered to wear an electronic bracelet and remain under house arrest for 60 days, according to a statement from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a report in the Ukrainian news agency Ukrinform.

Ukraine's security service, known as the SBU, searched Pavlo's home Saturday. He is suspected of violating the country's criminal code and inciting inter-religious hatred.

The security officials alleged Pavlo has "repeatedly insulted the religious feelings of Ukrainians, humiliated the views of believers of other denominations and tried to form hostile sentiments towards them."

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They also said Pavlo "made statements that justified or denied the actions of the aggressor country."

Pavlo denies the allegations and said Saturday that he has "never been on the side of aggression," describing his current status as "house arrest," the BBC reported.

The Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra has long been under the control of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The church is not to be confused with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

The arrest comes amid a reckoning between the two Orthodox Christian splinters and crackdowns on Orthodox leaders with ties to Moscow throughout the war.

The monastery at question, known in English as the Kyiv Monastery of Caves, was founded in 1051 A.D. when Kyiv was the capital of the Kyivan Rus kingdom.

It has been a center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity ever since and its importance to history led to its inscription as a world heritage site by the United Nations in 1990.

The Russian Orthodox Church -- the largest of all Eastern Orthodox churches -- has held control over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOCMP) since the 17th Century.

However, a rival church was started after the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917. That church, called the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), was created to restore a version of the church that had existed in the 17th Century before the annexation by the Russian Orthodox Church.

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The UAOC ultimately ceased to exist under the rule of the Soviet Union but a third iteration of the church was founded in 1991. Eventually, the UAOC splintered into two factions and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriarchate (UOCKP) was created.

However, the Russian Orthodox Church claimed jurisdiction over the Ukraine churches. Political tensions between Kyiv and Moscow began to rise and, in 2014, Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

In all, the Eastern Orthodox Church is composed of more than a dozen autocephalous churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, each of which mostly retains its own autonomy.

Because of the rise of tensions, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I -- viewed as the central head of all Eastern Orthodox Christianity -- withdrew the excommunication of the heads of the UAOC and UOCKP in 2018.

The UAOC and UOCKP then merged into the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in 2018 and officially received independence from the Russian Orthodox Church from the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Some parishes of the UOCMP ultimately switched allegiance to the new OCU.

The UOCMP renamed itself as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) in May 2022, while alleging that it severed ties with Moscow. Still, some members of the church have been suspected of maintaining ties to Russia.

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The OCU has been firm in its support of Kyiv amid the war in Ukraine.

Archimandrite Avraamii, a leader of the OCU, issued a statement Saturday seemingly blasting remarks by Pavlo.

"As acting governor of the Lavra, I am deeply outraged by the statements and actions made by our former leader," Avraamii said.

"Does he not know that unjust curses fall on the head of the one who curses? All the tears of the brothers, about which he says, are his fault. And all the curses that he sends both to the president and to all those who disagree with him -- actually return to him."

Avraamii also urged Orthodox Christians in Ukraine to "continue to pray" for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

"We pray for your family, for all who work with you to defeat the enemy of peace," Avraamii said.

Pavlo was expected to appear in a Ukrainian courtroom on Saturday, but his hearing has been rescheduled for Monday because of his poor health.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has blasted Ukrainian officials for ordering those who remain aligned to the UOC from leaving the monastery. Ukraine's Culture Ministry had ordered those affiliated with the UOC to leave the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra by March 29.

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The monastery is owned by the Ukrainian government, which grants the free use of such buildings to religious organizations.

The Ukrainian Secret Service announced in November that it had raided the monastery as the authorities searched hundreds of church buildings across Ukraine.

Authorities allegedly found pro-Russian propaganda at the monastery as well as Russian nationals who presented outdated identification from the Soviet Union.

The SBU said that last year it initiated 61 criminal proceedings against pro-Russian clerics and sanctioned 17 officials with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

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