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Ukraine’s pro-Russian monasteries arouse local mistrust | world news

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At the start of the war in Ukraine, soldiers at a military airstrip in the west of the country set out to find the origin of a laser pointer they feared was marking targets on their base.

They found him in a nearby church. Behind the thick walls of the building in Kolomyia, manned by monks loyal to Moscow, they also discovered a large stock of food and alcohol, as well as three rifles.

“It’s very, very surprising, because it was a monastery,” said Father Mykhailo Arsenich, military chaplain to the unit that searched the church. “There was a large stock of food, packed for military use, designed to keep 60 to 65 people going for a very long time.”

“We found two pistols and a shotgun converted from a combat Kalashnikov. They couldn’t answer the question of why priests needed guns.

A bitter and long-standing dispute over religious allegiance has escalated since the invasion of Russia. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church formally separated from the Moscow leadership three years ago, but many historic churches and monasteries have remained faithful in religious practice and political allegiance to Russia.

These ties to Moscow have put the Ukrainian communities around them under suspicion. To many locals, the thick walls and cave networks of ancient monasteries and churches suddenly look like potential military bases or warehouses for a hostile invading force.

Pochaiv, one of the holiest sites in western Ukraine, was built to honor a footprint of the Virgin Mary and a famous military victory four centuries ago.

The sprawling complex of ancient churches, cave chapels and a historic bell tower, normally bustling with pilgrims, is almost empty.

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Some stay away because they fear it will be targeted as a symbol of Moscow, some stay away because they fear it will be used as a military base to launch attacks, and d Others simply want to distance themselves from the Russian ties he represents. .

“I’m afraid there will be an attack,” said a woman who runs a hostel for pilgrims a few hundred meters from the site. Its normally occupied dormitories are empty.

The church is closed to visitors outside of services for the first time that Sasha – a former altar boy now in his 30s – remembers. “It’s because of the situation,” said the only monk willing to talk; others greet visitors.

Burly men in military boots follow a group of foreign visitors, not bothering to conceal their surveillance.

There is no evidence of Russian military links on any of the sites. But in the strongly nationalist west, allegiance to Moscow after a devastating invasion is itself a source of suspicion.

The firearms found in Kolomyia were registered, so not illegal, nor the stock of food. But the discovery has inflamed local concerns that Russian troops may consider using the building, just 300 meters from the airfield, as an outpost if they march further west.

“We haven’t found the laser pointer, but we have found the location where we believe it was used. A hole in the wall, facing the right direction,” Arsenich said. “I have no doubt, if Russian paratroopers land there, they will use the church as a base.”

“I stopped going to confession ten years ago. I don’t like how they are heavily involved in pro-Russian politics,” said Yuir, a 62-year-old businessman from Pochaiv, who said his deeply religious mother would have been heartbroken if she had lived to see suspicions between the church and the community around. this.

Like many Ukrainians who no longer trust Russian-linked churches in their country, Yuir is particularly wary of the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, who, according to information from Soviet archives, was a government agent before the fall of the Soviet Union. USSR.

“Kirill is a KGB guy, and he supports any aggression against Ukraine,” he said, but asked not to give his last name, worried like many in the city about communal tensions over the church. “He’s a bastard, not a religious leader.”

In a sermon, Kirill said Russian values ​​were being tested by the West, which only offered excessive consumption and the illusion of freedom.

Others resent a church they say doesn’t care about its community, excluding them from what is effectively a former air raid tunnel. They wonder what lurks in the tunnels if the townspeople sheltering in the shadow of the monastery cannot enter.

“They have a lot of underground tunnels there, very good and protected. If there’s shelling here, we don’t have a safe place, only the Lavra. But the priests are not suggesting that you can come and sit there and be safe,” said Nadia, a housewife who lives next to the monument.

Whether the violence of the war reaches Pochaiv or not, however, many who grew up around her believe the Russian invasion will change her future. The horrors of this year make a religious split with Moscow inevitable, they say.

“My dream is to do a story about the lavra, the history of the place and the role of modern history,” Sasha said. “To try to convince people, we have to stop and change direction, because we can’t have a Russian church here.”