Kiev protesters see powerful ally under arrow


KIEV, Ukraine – After riot police stormed Independence Square here early on Saturday, spraying tear gas, throwing stun grenades and batons, dozens of young protesters ran in terrified scattering in the streets. It was 4.30 am, the air cold, the sky dark. As they took their bearings, the half-lit bell tower of the monastery of St. Michael with the golden dome beckoned to them.

Inside, fleeing protesters found more than warmth and safety. They had arrived at a stronghold of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, where they were received not only on a humanitarian basis, but because the Church, driven by its own historic tensions with Moscow, actively supports their uprising. He is strongly in favor of European integration to allow Ukraine to free itself from Russia’s grip and has joined in calls to overthrow the Ukrainian government.

From the conversion of Princess Olga, regent of Kievan Rus, in the 10th century to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Orthodox Church has generally prospered by acting in concert with political powers. His efforts to confront the authorities have tended to go awry, such as when Philip II, the Metropolitan of Moscow, protested against the political massacres in 1568 by refusing to bless Ivan the Terrible. He was imprisoned, shackled around his neck and strangled.

But in recent days, the Kyiv Patriarchate, which controls Saint Michael, has become a powerful ally of the thousands of demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovych and the revival of far-reaching political and trade agreements with the European Union. . Union which he refused to sign. Some priests even led prayer sessions in Independence Square, occupied by demonstrators.

“Our church is with the people,” the head of the Kyiv Patriarchate, 84-year-old Patriarch Filaret, said in an interview. “It supports Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. We pray to God to help us enter the European Union in order to maintain our statehood, maintain peace and improve people’s lives.

Protesters who besieged public buildings in the shaken Ukrainian capital on Wednesday stepped up their protest, blocking the central bank, pitching tents and lighting bonfires on the sidewalk outside.

Leaders of the protest had vowed to surround more government buildings after Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday rejected a measure calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government. But on Wednesday morning, their goal of blocking the presidential administration building had not been achieved.

While the situation remained fluid, the demonstrators were able to count on the support of the church and Filaret, whose oppositional posture offers a stark contrast to Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close ally and more. in addition to President Vladimir V. Putin.

As Russia sought in recent months to persuade Ukraine and other former Soviet republics to turn away from deals with Europe, Kirill lent his own spiritual strength to the effort – by personally surrendering, for example, in Moldova, where he denounced Europe and the West as places where “morality simply disappears”.

Filaret is neither as powerful nor as influential as Kirill. The Kyiv Patriarchate is one of the three ruling entities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, along with the Moscow Patriarchate, headed by Metropolitan Volodymyr, who reports to Kirill, and the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

There are also many other denominations in Ukraine, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which dominates the western part of the country. Experts said pluralism made religious leaders less likely to echo government views.

“Ukraine has the most pluralistic religious market in Eastern Europe,” said Viktor Yelensky, president of the Ukrainian Association for Religious Freedom. “Because none of the churches unites more than a quarter of the citizens, there is a balance of power.”

“In Russia,” he added, “there is a main church, which cooperates with the authorities, while in Ukraine, the church is more dependent on the people.”

A number of religious leaders in Ukraine, including Volodymyr, have issued statements condemning the violence and urging a peaceful resolution to the unrest. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, urged the authorities “not to allow the shedding of a single drop of blood”, and the former head of this church, Lubomyr Husar, spoke at a large protest rally on Sunday.

But the Kyiv Patriarchate went far beyond these statements, providing direct and active support to the uprising. The accommodation of dozens of beaten demonstrators in his monastery is considered by the organizers of the demonstration as a major turning point.

“I don’t know who made the decision to go to St. Michael’s, but it was the right thing, in part because it hinged on the whole concept of a sanctuary,” said a Western diplomat observing the events here, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol. “The monks closed the doors, and that’s what gave them time to rebuild. “

Yulia Onyschenko, 19, a student at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute who was among those fleeing the violence, said church officials protected the protesters as police pursued them. “They have closed all the doors, and there are a lot of doors,” Ms. Onyschenko said. “We are very grateful.”

Church officials gave protesters tea and blankets, and many slept on rugs on the floor of the main cathedral as a monk sang prayers all night. Participants described it as an almost mystical experience, recalling events around 800 years ago when people sought refuge from Tatar and Mongol invaders in the original, long-destroyed monastery.

“It’s very symbolic,” said Yuri Ignatenko, 27, an actor from Zhytomyr, about 85 miles west of Kiev. He spent several nights in the church and his eyes shone as he remembered the night prayer. Referring to Ukrainian riot police, Mr. Ignatenko said: “The Berkut were like the Mongols chasing people to the monastery.

“It is very important that the church supports people without any motive, but sincerely,” he said. “We can feel it.”

On Saturday afternoon, more than 10,000 demonstrators gathered in the square in front of the monastery. The volunteers brought food and clothes and threw money into plastic bags distributed by the organizers. It was an unexpected precursor of the huge march and rally of hundreds of thousands of people on Sunday in which demonstrators took control of Independence Square and several public buildings.

“The church was always with the people,” said Yulia Solntsova, 28, a psychologist who spent Tuesday night at the monastery.

In Tuesday’s interview at his downtown headquarters, a metro station in Independence Square, Filaret said protesters, and residents across Ukraine, had reason to feel betrayed by Mr. Yanukovych.

The president, Filaret said, had promised for more than a year that he would sign the agreements, only to change course last month under heavy pressure from the Kremlin. “People really believed in the president and the government,” he said.

Filaret added that he recognizes the challenges organized religion has faced in Europe, but that the promise of freedom and independence for Ukraine is more important. “We have no illusions about Europe,” he said. “Europe has its drawbacks. But that does not mean that Europe has ceased to be Christian.

There are also no illusions about Russia’s efforts to maintain control over Ukraine, Filaret said, adding that the standoff between Europe and Russia created the risk of a new cold War.

“If Ukraine enters the European Union,” he said, “then a great democratic force is created in the world, which means Europe and the United States of America. It is a great democratic force based on freedom, technological progress and peace. And this force can influence the whole world.

Russia’s efforts to derail deals with Europe have been seen by many here as an attempt to keep Ukraine trapped in Moscow’s orbit and prevent improvements in public services, including the rule of law, and a general increase in the quality of life.

Older Ukrainians have bad memories of Soviet times, as does the Orthodox Church here.

In the 1930s, for example, Soviet authorities demolished the Golden-domed St. Michael’s Monastery, which was originally built in the 1100s and destroyed and rebuilt several times over the following centuries. The resort was most recently rebuilt, on the model of an earlier design, in the 1990s.

Filaret said he believes Russia is seeking to maintain its geopolitical influence. “Without Ukraine, Russia does not have such a great influence,” he said.

The patriarch also had some advice, perhaps pious. “My personal opinion on how we should get out of this situation: First, Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. Second: the resignation of the government. If these conditions are met, people will be satisfied. “

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