KYIV, Ukraine — Fighting has damaged a 16th-century monastery and cave complex that is a highly revered Orthodox Christian site for believers in both Russia and Ukraine, according to a church statement, in an incident sure to drive a deeper wedge between the Ukrainian and Russian branches of the church.
Artillery shells struck a residential building at the Holy Dormition Svyatogorsk Lavra in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, wounding people who had sought refuge in the monastery from the Russian invasion, according to the statement. It did not clarify how many people were wounded or which side fired the artillery.
“The blast wave damaged the premises of the monastery, where many brothers and many refugees lived,” the statement said. “Almost all the windows were broken and church buildings were destroyed to varying degrees.”
Built into a high bank of the Seversky Donets River in eastern Ukraine, the Svyatogorsk Lavra is seen as one of the three most sacred sites in Ukraine for Orthodox believers. Before the war, it drew thousands of pilgrims a year.
The war in Ukraine is also a conflict over the future of the Orthodox Church in the country. The Russian church has made no secret of its desire to unite the Ukrainian and Russian churches and control some of the holiest sites in Orthodoxy in the Slavic world, which are in Ukraine.
An independent Ukrainian church has been slowly asserting itself since the country’s independence in 1991, and received formal autonomous status within the Eastern Orthodox church in 2019.
In Ukraine today, churches and monasteries are divided between the independent Ukrainian church and a branch loyal to Moscow. The Svyatogorsk Lavra is visited by believers from both sides of this schism, but is controlled by the church subordinate to the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
If Ukraine prevails against the Russian invasion, the Moscow church will all but certainly be ejected from the country, including from sites such as the Svyatogorsk Lavra. If Russia wins, the Ukrainian church is unlikely to survive inside Ukraine.
Damage to monasteries or churches could also sway opinions of the war among believers in Russia, though Russian state media has generally shown little footage of destruction in the war.