Ukrainians celebrate Palm Sunday in church marred by dispute

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Willow branches in hand, Ukrainians marked Palm Sunday in the country’s most revered Orthodox site that has been at the heart of a religious dispute playing out in parallel with the war against Russia.

Dozens of worshippers filled the grand Refectory Church of Anthony and Theodosius located inside the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastic complex. Many more waited outside in the sprawling courtyard and observed the service there.

The occasion marks the first significant religious service to be held in the complex following the March 29 eviction order issued by the Ukrainian government against Orthodox monks residing in the monastery over their alleged links with Russia. The monks had refused to leave the premises before the eviction deadline.

Sunday’s service was peaceful with some police presence by the entrances of the complex.

The site, which is known in English as the Monastery of the Caves, contains a church, monastic and museum buildings. It’s oldest parts date back to the dawn of Christianity a millennium ago.

It is owned by the Ukrainian government and the state agency overseeing the property notified the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in March that it was terminating their lease. The move comes amid a wider crackdown on the UOC over its historic ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader Patriarch Kirill has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

After the service, Metropolitan Epiphanius, head of the pro-Kyiv Orthodox Church of Ukraine, blessed worshipers outside the church doors with holy water.

Worshippers welcomed the eviction order.

“I am very glad that this is finally happening, that the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is cleared of Moscow roots and it is renewed and comes to life,” said Yulia Sencuk, speaking outside the church. “By these very events we are more likely to bring our victory closer.”

Palm Sunday marks the last Sunday before Easter and signals the start of a holy week of prayer and reflections for Christians. The day celebrates Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, where it is believed he was welcomed with palm fronds on the road. Orthodox churches use different reference dates to calculate when Easter occurs, which can be up to four weeks later than the holiday marked by other branches of Christianity.

Instead of holding the symbolic palms, many held willow branches on Sunday in keeping with tradition in Ukraine.

Personnel of Ukraine’s Armed Forces were present, along with civilians, to mark the occasion in the church.

“It’s a very important holiday for me because it’s our tradition, and it’s about our peace, our independence, our belief in God, in peace, in our … victory,” said Irina, a servicewoman in attendance. She spoke on the condition her last name not be disclosed, in keeping with army protocols.

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