KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine's top security agency notified a top Orthodox priest Saturday that he was suspected of justifying Russia's aggression, a criminal offense, amid a bitter dispute over a famed Orthodox monastery.
Metropolitan Pavel, the abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, Ukraine’s most revered Orthodox site, has strongly resisted the authorities' order to vacate the complex. Earlier in the week, he cursed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, threatening him with damnation.
During a court hearing in the Ukrainian capital, the metropolitan strongly rejected the claim by the Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, that he condoned Russia's invasion. Pavel described the accusations against him as politically driven.
SBU agents raided his residence and prosecutors asked the court to put him under house arrest pending the investigation. The hearing was adjourned until Monday after the metropolitan said he wasn't feeling well.
The monks in the monastery belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has been accused of having links to Russia. The dispute surrounding the property, also known as Monastery of the Caves, is part of a wider religious conflict that has unfolded in parallel with the war.
The Ukrainian government has cracked down on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has insisted that it’s loyal to Ukraine and has denounced the Russian invasion from the start. The church declared its independence from Moscow.
But Ukrainian security agencies have claimed that some in the UOC have maintained close ties with Moscow. They’ve raided numerous holy sites of the church and later posted photos of rubles, Russian passports and leaflets with messages from the Moscow patriarch as proof that some church officials have been loyal to Russia.
The Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery is owned by the Ukrainian government, and the agency overseeing it notified the monks that it was terminating the lease and they had until Wednesday to leave the site.
Metropolitan Pavel told worshipers Wednesday that the monks would not leave pending the outcome of a lawsuit the UOC filed in a Kyiv court to stop the eviction.
The government claims that the monks violated their lease by making alterations to the historic site and other technical infractions. The monks rejected the claim as a pretext.
Many Orthodox communities in Ukraine have cut their ties with the UOC and transitioned to the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which more than four years ago received recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Bartholomew I is considered the first among equals among the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Patriarch Kirill and most other Orthodox patriarchs have refused to accept his decision authorizing the second Ukrainian church.
Also on Saturday, Zelenskyy said he spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron to brief him on the battlefield situation and to discuss defense cooperation.
While Ukraine is preparing for a counteroffensive expected later this spring, Russian forces have kept pressing their effort to capture the city of Bakhmut. The Ukrainian stronghold in the eastern Donbas region has been the focus of a ferocious battle that has dragged on for eight months in eastern Ukraine.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a Saturday visit to the military headquarters overseeing the action in Ukraine that Russia's defense industries have boosted production of ammunition “by several times.” Russian's government previously acknowledged ammunition shortages,
The U.K. Defense Ministry said in its latest analysis Saturday that the Russian offensive personally overseen by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, has fizzled. Russian President Vladimir Putin put Gerasimov in charge of overseeing what Moscow refers to as its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
“Gerasimov’s tenure has been characterized by an effort to launch a general winter offensive with the aim of extending Russian control over the whole of the Donbas region,” the British ministry said on Twitter. “Eighty days on, it is increasingly apparent that this project has failed.”
As evidence, the ministry said that “on several axes across the Donbas front, Russian forces have made only marginal gains at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties."
With the losses, the Russian military was "largely squandering its temporary advantage in personnel” from a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists Putin ordered in the fall, according to the U.K. analysis.
It noted that Gerasimov, who has been in his job for 10 years, “is pushing the limits of how far Russia’s political leadership will tolerate failure.”
The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, meanwhile, mocked a new edition of Moscow’s foreign policy doctrine published Friday that described the Russian policy as “peaceful, open, predictable, consistent, pragmatic and based on respect for universally recognized principles and norms of international law.”
“April Fool’s Day is TOMORROW,” the Foreign Office tweeted late Friday. ___
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine