KIEV, Ukraine (NY Times) — After riot police officers stormed Independence Square here early Saturday, spraying tear gas, throwing stun grenades and swinging truncheons, dozens of young protesters ran, terrified, scattering up the streets. It was after 4:30 a.m., the air cold, the sky black. As they got their bearings, the half-lit bell tower of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery beckoned.
Inside, the fleeing demonstrators found more than warmth and safety. They had arrived in a bastion of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, where they were welcomed not only on a humanitarian basis but because the church, driven by its own historical tensions with Moscow, is actively supporting their uprising. It strongly favors European integration to enable Ukraine to break free from Russia’s grip, and has joined the calls to oust the Ukrainian government.
From the conversion of Princess Olga, the regent of Kievan Rus, in the 10th century to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Orthodox Church has generally flourished by acting in close concert with political powers. Its efforts to confront the authorities have tended to go badly, as when Philip II, the metropolitan of Moscow, protested political massacres in 1568 by refusing to bless Ivan the Terrible. He was jailed, chained around the neck and strangled.
But in recent days, the Kyivan Patriarchate, which controls St. Michael’s, has emerged as a powerful ally of the thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich and the revival of the far-reaching political and trade accords with the European Union that he has refused to sign. Some priests have even led prayer sessions in Independence Square, which protesters have occupied.
“Our church is together with the people,” the Kyivan Patriarchate’s 84-year-old leader, Patriarch Filaret, said in an interview. “It supports Ukraine entering the European Union. We pray to God that he will help us enter the European Union in order to keep our statehood, to keep peace and to improve the life of the people.”
On Wednesday, the demonstrators who have laid siege to public buildings in the rattled Ukrainian capital expanded their protest, blockading the central bank, setting up tents and lighting bonfires on the sidewalk outside.
Protest leaders had vowed to surround more government buildings after the Ukrainian Parliament on Tuesday defeated a measure calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government. But as of Wednesday morning, their goal of blockading the presidential administration building had not been achieved.
While the situation remained fluid, the protesters could count on the support of the church and of Filaret, whose oppositional posture provides a striking contrast to Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close and increasingly important ally of President Vladimir V. Putin.
As Russia sought in recent months to persuade Ukraine and other former Soviet republics to turn away from the agreements with Europe, Kirill lent his own spiritual muscle to the effort — making a personal visit, for instance, to Moldova, where he denounced Europe and the West as places where “morals are simply disappearing.”
Filaret is neither as powerful nor as influential as Kirill. The Kyivan Patriarchate is one of three governing entities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, along with the Moscow Patriarchate, led by Metropolitan Volodymyr, who reports to Kirill, and the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
There are also many other faiths in Ukraine, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which dominates the western part of the country. Experts said pluralism made religious leaders less likely to echo the views of the government.
“Ukraine has the most pluralistic religious market in Eastern Europe,” said Viktor Yelensky, president of the Ukrainian Association for Religious Liberty. “Because none of the churches unite more than a quarter of citizens, there is a balance of forces.”
“In Russia,” he added, “there is a main church, which cooperates with the authorities, while in Ukraine the church is more dependent on the people.”
A number of religious leaders in Ukraine, including Volodymyr, have issued statements condemning violence and urging a peaceful resolution to the unrest. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, urged the authorities “not to permit the shedding of even a drop of blood,” and that church’s former leader, Lubomyr Husar, spoke at a large protest rally on Sunday.
But the Kyivan Patriarchate has gone far beyond such statements, providing direct and active support to the uprising. The sheltering of dozens of beaten demonstrators in its monastery is regarded among protest organizers as a major turning point.
“I don’t know who made the decision to go to St. Michael’s, but it was the right thing, in part because it rested on the whole concept of sanctuary,” said a Western diplomat observing the events here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol. “The monks closed the gates, and that was the thing that gave them the time to reconstitute.”
Yulia Onyschenko, 19, a student at Kiev Polytechnic Institute who was among those fleeing the violence, said church officials had protected the demonstrators as the police gave chase. “They closed all the gates, and there are a lot of gates,” Ms. Onyschenko said. “We’re very grateful.”
Church officials gave the protesters tea and blankets, and many slept on carpets on the floor of the main cathedral as a monk chanted prayers through the night. Participants have described it as an almost mystical experience, recalling events about 800 years ago when people sought refuge from invading Tatars and Mongols in the original monastery, long since destroyed.
“It’s very symbolic,” said Yuri Ignatenko, 27, an actor from Zhytomyr, about 85 miles west of Kiev. He has spent several nights in the church, and his eyes glistened as he recalled the nightlong prayer. Referring to the Ukrainian riot police, Mr. Ignatenko said, “The Berkut were like the Mongols who chased the people to the monastery.”
“It’s very important that the church is supporting people without any motive, but sincerely,” he said. “We can feel it.”
By Saturday afternoon, more than 10,000 protesters had gathered in the square outside the monastery. Volunteers brought food and clothing and tossed cash into plastic bags put out by organizers. It was an unexpected precursor to the huge march and rally by hundreds of thousands of people on Sunday in which demonstrators seized control of Independence Square and several public buildings.
“The church was always with the people,” said Yulia Solntsova, 28, a psychologist who spent Tuesday night at the monastery.
In the interview on Tuesday at his downtown headquarters, one subway stop from Independence Square, Filaret said the protesters, and people throughout Ukraine, had reason to feel betrayed by Mr. Yanukovich.
The president, Filaret said, had promised for more than a year that he would sign the accords, only to reverse course last month under heavy pressure from the Kremlin. “People really believed the president and believed in the government,” he said.
Filaret added that he recognized the challenges organized religion has faced in Europe, but that the promise of freedom and independence for Ukraine was more important. “We are under no illusions about Europe,” he said. “Europe has its disadvantages. But it doesn’t mean that Europe stopped being Christian.”
There are no illusions about Russia’s effort to keep a grip on Ukraine, either, Filaret said, adding that the tug of war between Europe and Russia created the risk of a new Cold War.
“If Ukraine enters the European Union,” he said, “then a big democratic force is created in the world, which means Europe and the United States of America. This is a big democratic force based on freedom, technological progress and peace. And this force can influence the whole world.”
Russia’s effort to derail the accords with Europe has been viewed by many here as an attempt to keep Ukraine stuck in Moscow’s orbit and to prevent improvements in public services, including the rule of law, and a general increase in quality of life.
Older Ukrainians have bad memories of Soviet times, and so has the Orthodox Church here.
In the 1930s, for instance, Soviet officials demolished St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, which was originally built in the 1100s and destroyed and rebuilt several times over the ensuing centuries. The complex was most recently rebuilt, modeled on an earlier design, in the 1990s.
Filaret said he believed that Russia was seeking to maintain geopolitical leverage. “Without Ukraine, Russia does not have such big influence,” he said.
The patriarch also had some advice, perhaps wishful. “My opinion, personal, about how we should exit from this situation: First, Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. Second: resignation of the government. If those conditions will be met, people will be happy with that.”
Oksana Lyachynska contributed reporting.