Zelenskiy: Ukraine seeks 'spiritual independence', acts against church

FILE PHOTO: Orhodox Christmas celebration in Kyiv

(Reuters) - Ukraine's punitive actions against a branch of the Orthodox church linked to Russia are part of a drive to achieve "spiritual independence," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday.

Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian leaders have accused the long-established Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) of undermining Ukrainian unity and collaborating with Moscow.

Authorities ordered the church last Friday to leave its base in the 980-year-old Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, prompting Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to ask Pope Francis and other religious leaders to help stop the crackdown.

"One more step towards strengthening our spiritual independence was taken this week," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address, without referring directly to the order.

Ukrainians, he said, had reacted positively.

"We will continue this movement," he said. "We will not allow the terrorist state any opportunity to manipulate the spiritual life of our people, to destroy Ukrainian shrines - our Lavras - or to steal values from them."

Kirill has strongly supported Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In his appeal, he urged religious leaders and international organisations to "make every effort to prevent the forced closure of the monastery".

The Security Service of Ukraine has since October carried out searches at UOC churches, imposed sanctions on its bishops and financial backers, and opened criminal cases against dozens of clergymen.

Church officials say it and its millions of worshippers are victims of a witch-hunt.

Orthodoxy is the primary faith in Ukraine and the Moscow-linked church has been in competition for worshippers with an independent Orthodox Church, founded after the Soviet collapse in 1991 but only recognised by church hierarchy in 2018.

The independent church has been gaining in size and following since the invasion.

The Ukrainian culture ministry says the Moscow-linked church has until March 29 to leave the Pechersk Lavra monastery complex.

(Reporting by Ron Popeski and Nick Starkov; Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)