Ukrainian Monks Seize Part of Monastery

Ukraine's Orthodox monks are resorting to sit-ins to regain church property seized by the Soviet government and still occupied by secular organizations.

For the past week, about a dozen monks have occupied the State Archaeological Institute's archives, housed in the gold-crested, onion-domed Monastery of the Caves, demanding the government return the building to the church. The holed-up monks refuse to allow entry to outsiders.

It was the second-such occupation in a month.

On Friday, a thin bearded face appeared in the open window of the dilapidated building at the monastery, but the monk refused to speak to a reporter.

"They won't give up until they receive what's theirs," said a young novice who refused to give his name. He was bringing the group food, climbing in and out of a second-floor window reached by a ladder.

Ukrainian media quoted Metropolitan Volodymyr, leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to which the monastery belongs, as saying the institute had "desecrated" the premises. Volodymyr denied the monks were breaking the law, saying they were simply reclaiming their property.

The nearly 1,000-year-old Caves Monastery a UNESCO world heritage site spreads over two large hills in central Kiev overlooking the mighty Dnieper River. Miles of underground tunnels containing crypts and ecclesiastical objects attract thousands of visitors each year.

Originally, the dilapidated building the monks occupy was a church and inn for pilgrims.

In the 1920s, Soviet authorities declared the monastery a state reserve and drove out all the monks.

A special commission returned part of the monastery in 1988 on the 1,000th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus the first Slavic state. The church gained more of it after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Last year, President Leonid Kuchma ordered all religious property confiscated by the Soviet Union returned, but the order has not been implemented. In August, top officials promised to return the monastery to the church within three months.

The monks seized the space after hearing rumors the government planned to lease it to new tenants, said Yuriy Bilan, a historian at a museum on the monastery grounds.

Valentina Kulakova, deputy director of the Kiev-Pechersk Historic Archaeological Reserve, which runs the archive in the disputed building, said the monks had a valid claim but questioned their methods.

"We understand perfectly that we must return religious buildings to the monastery, but it should be done in a civilized way, backed by orders from the authorities," she said.

The Caves sit-in is not the first time this year that Orthodox believers have taken the law into their own hands.

Last month, about 60 monks and laypeople from the nearby Holy Candlemas Monastery forced their way into a building housing two Western democracy foundations that have rented space in the monastery from the government for the past 10 years.

The group arrived in the early morning, pinned a guard to the wall and looked around for keys to open the offices, but found none, said Markian Bilynskyi, who heads one of the foundations, the Pylyp Orlyka Institute. The crowd blocked the offices and refused to let police in. Four days later, police finally persuaded the protesters to leave, and then sealed the offices pending a court decision, Bilynskyi said.

He insisted that although property should be returned, leases must be respected. However, the government hesitates to enforce the law against the monks.

"They're reluctant to do anything because it involves the church," Bilynskyi said.