Scuffles broke out outside a Kyiv monastery on Thursday after a Ukrainian branch of the Orthodox Church that the government says has ties with Russia defied an eviction order.
Tensions over the presence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) at the 980-year-old Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery have risen since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Kyiv accuses the UOC of maintaining ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has supported Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. The UOC says it broke all links with the Russian Church in May 2022.
Hours after a deadline to leave the monastery passed at midnight on Wednesday, members of the UOC refused entry to representatives of a government commission who wanted to inspect buildings in the gold-domed monastery's sprawling complex.
Shortly afterward, scuffles broke out in which a Reuters reporter was hit and shoved by an unidentified man and another reporter was pushed away by a cleric as she tried to approach him. No one was hurt.
Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko later condemned the "brutal" treatment of the commission members. He said in a statement that the government had filed a complaint with police and that efforts to inspect the buildings would continue on Friday.
The UOC is Ukraine's second-largest church, though 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.
Russia condemned Kyiv's push against the UOC as an outrage and a crime.
"Such actions are increasingly plunging Ukraine into the Middle Ages in the very worst sense of the word," foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on the Telegram app.
The deputy head of a Ukrainian state body responsible for the monastery earlier this month said that a government commission was being established to make decisions on questions related to the UOC's tenancy agreement at the monastery.
The government says the UOC broke the terms of its tenancy and constructed buildings at the monastery illegally. The UOC denies this.
(Additonal reporting by Olena Harmash and David Ljunggren; Writing by Max Hunder; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mark Porter)