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The religious battle at a Kyiv monastery

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Around the world, Orthodox Christians are celebrating Easter today. For Ukrainians, it's the second time they're marking the occasion since Russia's invasion a year ago. This time last year, Ukraine had just thrown Russian troops out of the suburbs of Kyiv. Today, the battle in Kyiv is religious as Ukraine's government attempts to shut down an allegedly pro-Russian religious group. NPR's Julian Hayda has this postcard from the Caves Monastery in Kyiv.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: I'm walking down a stone staircase, hunched to avoid hitting my head on the lime-washed cave roof. Candlelight is the only thing lighting up this labyrinth. There are dozens of niches housing the preserved bodies of saints under thin panes of glass.

Every sign says 11th century, 13th century, 12th century - dates that the Ukrainian government is quick to say were centuries before Moscow or Russia as we know today was ever put on the map. For all the noise upstairs, it's very quiet down here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

HAYDA: Upstairs and outside, it's raining. And I run into a monk, Archimandrite Paul, on the sidewalk in the monastery complex.

PAUL: We have all the right to be here because monks built this monastery. We inherited this monastery from first monks, and perhaps we are last monks.

HAYDA: Father Paul belongs to a group calling itself The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which, until a year ago, swore unwavering allegiance to the patriarch in Moscow. And that's one of the reasons why Ukraine's Culture Ministry, which owns and maintains the UNESCO Protected Monastery complex, wants the hundreds of monks who live here to leave.

PAUL: We aren't afraid. We understand completely that nobody can help us.

HAYDA: The monks ignored an eviction notice last month, and they're hoping a Ukrainian court can help them keep their lease. I ask Father Paul why he thinks this is happening.

PAUL: Have you ever read Revelation?

HAYDA: Revelation - the part of the Bible that refers to the end of days. Father Paul paints a grim picture about the future of Ukraine and the world, and he's not the only one. At least three other people I met here talk about an impending apocalypse. They blame a militaristic, atheist, decadent West for it.

(SOUND OF BIRD SINGING)

HAYDA: Before sunrise this morning on Easter Sunday, hundreds of people emerge from a dark fog with their Easter baskets, crowding in front of the monastery's main church.

AVRAAMIY: (Chanting in non-English language).

HAYDA: "As smoke vanishes, so let the wicked vanish. May their wrongdoings spill like wax before the fire," chants Father Avraamiy. He leads a competing group of Ukrainian-speaking monks that want to take over the monastery complex. They're aligned with a group called the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which is more liberal and progressive. They're pro-European and have frequently met with Western officials. The government has recently allowed this group to access the complex. Today's service was guarded by hundreds of police officers to prevent any clashes between the two competing groups.

OREST ZHEHALO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: Father Orhest Zhehalo is one of the priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. He thanks the government for letting them in and says he never thought he'd ever be celebrating Easter in the same place as Kyiv's founders did 1,000 years ago.

ZHEHALO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: Unlike the fire-and-brimstone message of the other monks, he says Easter is a time of hope. A holiday that marks Jesus' victory over death inspires him to believe Ukraine's war is not a lost cause.

Julian Hayda, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUND OF BELLS RINGING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda