Russian Orthodox head appeals against eviction of church from Kyiv

Orthodox Christmas service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow

(Reuters) - Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, on Saturday asked Pope Francis and other religious leaders to persuade Ukraine to stop a crackdown against a historically Russian-aligned wing of the church.

Kyiv on Friday ordered the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) to leave a monastery complex where it is based, the latest move against a denomination the government says is pro-Russian and collaborating with Moscow.

Kirill urged religious leaders and international organisations to "make every effort to prevent the forced closure of the monastery, which will lead to a violation of the rights of millions of Ukrainian believers", said a statement posted on the church's website.

Kirill strongly backed Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The UOC says it has severed its ties with Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate, and is the victim of a political witch hunt.

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

Kirill said it was regrettable that Ukrainian worshippers' rights and freedoms were being blatantly violated.

Among the many leaders to whom the appeal is addressed are Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of Egypt's Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros as well as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and U.N. human rights chief Volker Turk, the church said.

The Ukrainian culture ministry says the UOC has until March 29 to leave the 980-year-old Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, where it has its headquarters.

Most Ukrainian Orthodox believers belong to a separate branch of the faith, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, formed four years ago by uniting branches independent of Moscow's authority.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Paul Simao)