Pope Francis Expresses Concern Over Religious Crackdown in Ukraine

Pope Francis has recently spoken out about the ongoing religious tensions in Ukraine, specifically addressing the attempts by Ukrainian authorities to expel monks from the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a renowned Orthodox Christian site.

In a statement made during a general audience on Wednesday, the pontiff expressed his concern for the monks, stating, “I ask warring parties to respect religious places,” and emphasizing the importance of the clergy as “the support of the people of God.”

The Pope’s comments follow an appeal made by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to various Christian leaders and international organizations.

Kirill drew attention to what he described as “a sharp increase in state pressure on Orthodox Christians in Ukraine,” and specifically called for efforts to prevent the forced closure of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, which would “lead to a violation of the rights of millions” of the faithful.

The controversy began when the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture accused the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate of violating a 2013 agreement that allowed them to administer the religious site.

On March 10 the Ministry ordered clerics to vacate the monastery by March 29.

The clergy has refused to comply with the order.

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky supported the expulsion, framing it as “a move to strengthen our spiritual independence.”

This stance has provoked a strong response from Moscow, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accusing the Ukrainian government of holding the freedom of religion “hostage by the bandits.”

Religious tensions in Ukraine have escalated in recent years, particularly between the non-canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which is backed by Kiev, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which declared its independence from Moscow after Russia’s military operation in Ukraine in February 2022.

Despite this, the UOC has faced accusations of covertly supporting Russia, and numerous Orthodox monasteries throughout Ukraine have been subject to raids, including the Kiev Pechersk Lavra itself.