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Ukraine's revered caves monastery deteriorating amid money shortage

The workers standing on ladders at one of the churches at the Monastery of the Caves weren't touching it up for visitors to Ukraine's top tourist draw - they were trying to keep bricks from crashing down on their heads.

The monastery, a sprawling complex of richly decorated churches and candlelit caves containing monks' tombs dating from the 11th Century, is sliding into serious disrepair. Its golden-domed belltower, the tallest point on the Kiev skyline, has been closed to visitors for years because of insufficient funds for restoration. Part of the cave network collapsed in 2005.

Monastery managers and the monks who live in it have launched an appeal for help. But the prospect of getting more money from the cash-starved government appears dim, leaving anxieties high over the future of one of the most revered places for the world's Orthodox Christians.

"It is so difficult to name any historical monument that does not have problems now. It is almost impossible," said Sergiy Krolevets, general director of the Monastery of the Caves complex.

The monastery, called Pechersk Lavra in Ukrainian, attracts 2 to 3 million visitors each year. Founded in 1051 when monks settled into caves on a hillside above the Dnipro River, the complex is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Of the 120 structures at the monastery that are considered of historical significance, some 10 percent are in urgent need of repair.

Krolevets said that US$25 million is needed for the monastery complex, but last year Ukraine's government was able to squeeze out only about 34 million hryvna (US$6.7 million, EUR5.3 million) for renovation of historical structures throughout the entire country.

Monastery treasurer Archimandrite Varsonofity said the Ukrainian Orthodox Church spends 10-15 million hryvna (US$2-3 million) a year to support the monastery "but it's not enough, we still count on money from the state."

Officials say the monastery's problems are due to more than just its age, lack of money and its precarious position on the side of an eroding cliff. They also complain that the city government has allowed developers to build too close, causing foundation damage to the monastery's ancient buildings.

Tetyana Kulik, the site's main architect, said a planned hotel complex near the monastery's Church of the Savior threatens the whitewashed brick church and its 11th century frescos.

"We are so concerned," she said. "It could destroy the cathedral."

The asphalt on a lookout platform that offers breathtaking views of the Dnipro is riven with deep cracks, and one section is entirely off-limits marked "Danger Zone." The platform is part of the cracked and aging reinforcements that hold up the old wall that encircles the entire upper part of the monastery.

The Great Lavra Bell Tower, which stands 96.5 meters (316 feet) high and is considered so essential to the Kiev skyline that no new building is permitted to be taller, is closed for visitors and it is unclear when it will reopen. The walls of the tower are covered in graffiti.

In 2005, an underground water leak demolished part of the monastery's caves, breaking away 10 cubic meters (353 cubic feet) of land.

"To avoid such catastrophes, the Lavra needs a geological study but that could cost about 1 million hryvna (US$198,000, EUR156,000)," said Archimandrite Varsonofiy.

Ukraine's Culture Ministry, charged with protecting the country's historical sites, declined to comment on the monastery's troubles.

"If something happened to (the monastery), it would be a huge loss not only for Ukraine but for the whole world," said visitor Svetlana Lotosh.

Concern is high for some other major historical sites in Ukraine, including the UNESCO-listed St. Sophia Cathedral complex in downtown Kiev. The cathedral faces danger to its foundation from drilling at nearby construction projects and from the overloading of the local sewerage system. The director of the complex, Nelya Kukovalska, said she has appealed without success to Kiev authorities and prosecutors to stop construction projects nearby. "It's a time bomb," she said.

The sanctuary requested 41 million hryvna (US$8.1 million, EUR6.4 million) for restoration work this year but the government approved only half of that.

Other sites - from the historic island home of Ukrainian Cossacks in southeastern Ukraine to a 5th century Greek fortress on the Black Sea - are fighting developers and struggling to find cash to jump-start restoration work.

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