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Metropolitan Epiphanius conducts an Orthodox Christmas service at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra on Saturday in Kyiv.
Metropolitan Epiphanius conducts an Orthodox Christmas service at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra on Saturday in Kyiv. (Ethan Swope/Getty Images)

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, lamented the change of control of one of the most famous Orthodox churches in Kyiv, which on Saturday held its first Orthodox Christmas mass in the Ukrainian language in centuries.

The Dormition Cathedral, part of the historic Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, returned to the direct control of the Ukrainian government after a contract for the use of the building by a branch of the Ukrainian church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) — which had close ties with Moscow and used the complex as a home base — expired on Dec. 31, 2022. 

The Ukrainian government suspended the lease of the UOC to the Dormition Cathedral and the Refectory Church — also known as the Tabernacle Church — and returned them to state control in January. 

In a Christmas video message, Patriarch Kirill — who has been a staunch supporter of the war — asked for prayers “for our brothers in Ukraine who are being banished from Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.”
“That Lavra … for centuries was a keeper of a true undoctored Orthodoxy,” he added about the complex, which is also known as the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Ukrainian government also announced that the other major church branch, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), had been granted permission to celebrate a Christmas service on Jan. 7 in the Dormition Cathedral. The service was led by the Head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine Epiphanius I. 

People sing as Metropolitan Epiphanius conducts an Orthodox Christmas service at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra on Saturday in Kyiv.
People sing as Metropolitan Epiphanius conducts an Orthodox Christmas service at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra on Saturday in Kyiv. (Ethan Swope/Getty Images)

Metropolitan Epiphanius called the mass a “historical event” held in “historical circumstances, in a historical place.” 

“God in the time of difficult trials has given us a great gift: For the first time in the main cathedral church of the Dormition Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra the Ukrainian prayer of the local autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine is heard. Christ was born! Let us praise him,” Metropolitan Epiphanius said Saturday in a Facebook statement. 

Up until Saturday’s mass, services were held in Old Church Slavonic, which is used as liturgical language by some Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. 

SBU raid: The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) raided the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in late November as part of an effort to counter suspected “subversive activities of (the) Russian special services” in the country. The raid was aimed at “preventing the use of the Lavra as a cell of the ‘Russian world’” and the “use of Ukrainian Orthodox Church premises for hiding sabotage and reconnaissance groups, foreign citizens, storing weapons,” the SBU said in a statement.

The SBU has carried out searches of premises belonging to the UOC in several regions.  

Dec. 25 vs Jan. 7: In October last year, the OCU announced that it would allow its churches to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 — which marks the birth of Jesus according to the Gregorian calendar — in addition to Jan. 7, which marks the birth of Jesus according to the Julian calendar, deepening the rift with the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox believers who observe the Julian calendar. 

In May last year, the leaders of the other main branch, the UOC, which had been formally subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, announced they are breaking ties with Moscow, but part of the church had remained loyal to Russia. 

Uliana Pavlova contributed reporting to this post.



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