KYIV — Eight bishops wearing robes and mitres went to the Ukrainian president's offices this week to try to stop their historically Russian-aligned wing of the Orthodox Church being evicted from its Kyiv headquarters.
They got only as far as a checkpoint, where they were turned back, and their request for a meeting on Monday (March 20) with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was denied.
The bishops, who make up the ruling council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), appear to have little or no chance of preventing the Church's eviction on March 29 in a row unfolding against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The government says the UOC has broken tenancy agreements and must leave its historic seat — a sprawling, 980-year-old gold-domed monastery complex in the hills above central Kyiv called the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.
The Church, Ukraine's second-largest, is also accused by the government of retaining links with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) which has been vocal in its support of Russia's invasion.
Kyiv has opened criminal cases against over 50 UOC clergy in the past year on charges including treason and collaboration with Moscow. Some have been swapped for Ukrainian prisoners of war who had been held by Russia.
The UOC says it cut all ties with the ROC, which it used to recognise as its parent church, last May and that the charges against its clergy are politically motivated.
"We do not plan to leave, and we will not," Metropolitan Pavlo, the UOC clergyman running the Lavra, said last week.
Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleskandr Tkachenko told Reuters that violations of the tenancy agreement included the construction of new buildings on the vast monastery complex, and that the state had the right to take the site back.
He said Kyiv wanted the entire site and the cultural treasures that are housed inside to be in the hands of the state, rather than the UOC, which he described as "the Moscow branch of the Church."
UOC spokesperson Metropolitan Klyment said the government had not shown the Church any documents proving violations of the tenancy agreement at the monastery or justifying the need to leave. He added that the buildings had the correct permissions.
It is not clear what will happen on March 29 if the UOC does not leave the monastery.
The government transferred the monastery's main cathedral to another, Kyiv-backed branch of the Orthodox church late last year, but the UOC leadership has remained in residence at the lower part of the complex.
As the deadline approaches, Reuters correspondents have seen cars being searched by police as they leave the monastery. Tkachenko said this was to ensure valuable artefacts were not smuggled out.
Tensions have simmered for years between the Kyiv authorities and the UOC, but have mounted sharply since Russia's full-scale invasion in February last year.
An opinion poll in July 2022 showed only four per cent of Ukrainians considered themselves members of the UOC compared to 15 per cent in 2020, said Anton Hrushetskyi, Deputy Executive Director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.
The UOC was formally under the wing of Russia's Orthodox Church until May, and most Ukrainians have historically seen it as part of a larger Russian church, he said.
But the eviction order, and a planned law banning religious organisations affiliated with Russia, is troubling the UOC faithful.
"I think that the people don't support this decision because it means to take away God from the people, to take away their faith and change it for something else, according to how someone on the very top made it up," Natalia Lytovchenko, a 36-year-old worshipper, said at a recent service at the monastery.