Friday 9 July 1999

ROMAN CATHOLICS STRUGGLE TO RECOVER THEIR CHURCH BUILDINGS IN RUSSIA by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service Cossacks in Anapa, 750 miles south of Moscow, forcibly attempted to prevent the construction of a Roman Catholic church in April, Catholic priest MIROSLAV YANYAK told Keston: 'During construction the war in Yugoslavia started, and the Cossacks began vehement protests. They beat up one of our builders and he ended up in hospital.'  The Cossacks, however, formally withdrew their opposition to the new church building after the Catholics filed a lawsuit and the local Orthodox bishop agreed to act as a mediator. According to Fr Yanyak, when the church responded by filing a lawsuit with the local public prosecutor and informing the local Duma deputy, the public prosecutor invited the Cossacks to explain themselves, whereupon they requested that the lawsuit be withdrawn: 'The most important thing is that we were not intimidated.' Fr Yanyak told Keston that a written agreement between the church and the Cossacks was subsequently drawn up with the help of Orthodox Archbishop ISIDOR of Krasnodar and Cossack Chief Ataman GROMOV:  'It states that we are brothers in a common faith and is specifically intended to ensure that the Cossacks do not attempt to obstruct the construction of our church.' He added that the incident followed Cossack accusations that the Catholics were from the West and that Fr Yanyak was an agent of the CIA: 'When I explained to them that Greece - an Orthodox country - was also a member of NATO, this came as a complete surprise to them.' On 8 July the director of the public prosecutor's office in Anapa confirmed to Keston that the Catholics had withdrawn the lawsuit against the Cossacks and so no investigations had been conducted by her office. The situation in Anapa is a graphic illustration of the tribulations faced by the Catholic Church in its attempts to reverse years of Russian state policy shaped by distrust of the Vatican. On 22 June Fr VADIM SHAIKEVICH, secretary to Archbishop TADEUSZ KONDRUSIEWICZ, apostolic administrator of the Latin-rite Catholics in European Russia, told Keston: 'We do not own a single building - all our churches belong to the Russian Federation, including the land on which they stand. For this reason only a very few churches - such as the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Moscow - have been returned to us, or more precisely, the authorities have permitted us to use them.' The status of a second Moscow church, that of St. Louis, was still unclear, Fr Shaikevich explained; in the nineteenth century it had belonged to the French émigré community but it was nationalised in 1855 along with all Catholic churches on Russian soil.  'President Yeltsin presented it to the French nation in 1992, but no documents relating to its ownership exist.' Fr Shaikevich was more positive about the prospects for the former Catholic cathedral in Moscow, the Church of SS Peter and Paul, outside which masses currently take place on the street: 'Hopes have arisen for its return - when mayor of Moscow YURI LUZHKOV visited the Vatican, he promised to help in any way he could.' However, Moscow parish priest Fr ANTONI GEI was not as optimistic when he spoke to Keston on 17 June: 'There are no major changes in the situation regarding the hand-over of the Church of SS Peter and Paul. We were recently promised that part of the church would be made available for worship and Sunday school classes, but were subsequently told that this would be impossible.' According to Fr Gei, the reason given was that the government owns only a 38 per cent share of the building, with the rest belonging to private shareholders. 'The only way for us to get the building back is to prove in law that this privatisation was illegal - after all, the building was privatised a year after President Yeltsin issued a decree prohibiting the privatisation of places of worship and architectural monuments. The Church of SS Peter and Paul is both, and we have already prepared documents for use in court.' According to Fr Shaikevich, when the authorities permit the Catholic Church access to its former property, the best case scenario is if the lease is free of charge and for an unlimited period. Other churches may be leased free of charge, but for only 49 years, he said, while there are other 'disgraceful situations', such as that in Vologda, where the Catholic church has been privatised and now houses a restaurant. On 22 June Fr YEZHI YEGODINSKY, head of the Russian section of the Verbum Dei order, which ministers to the Vologda parish, confirmed that Catholics did not have access to the church there: 'We tried to get back the church in Vologda for many years. We ran out of energy and decided to give up the fight and build a new one.' The Catholic Church is also facing difficulties in recovering its property east of the Urals, according to a spokesperson at the curia of Bishop IOSIF   WERTH, apostolic administrator to the Catholics of western Siberia: 'Many of our churches are in ruins, but in Tomsk and Tyumen they have been returned. In Barnaul the church building has not yet been handed back; in 1998 its return was officially decided upon, but then new people came to power and they have postponed the deadline for its return. The church currently houses a pharmacy, for which the authorities could find no other place in the city.' On 22 June Bishop YEZHI MAZUR, Apostolic Administrator to the Catholics of eastern Siberia, told Keston that the situation concerning the return of property was poor: 'They gave back one church in Vladivostok, and in Irkutsk we managed to find a compromise. In Khabarovsk the authorities responded that the church building was property not of the Russian Federation, but of the administrative region, and they are currently deciding how to proceed. In Krasnoyarsk our local priest wrote to the authorities, and I have written twice, but there has been no response.' In Blagoveshchensk, he said, the Catholics were on good terms with the Orthodox, who had promised to vacate a former Catholic cathedral as soon as the construction of a new Orthodox church was complete. Fr Shaikevich pointed out to Keston that the Catholics were not alone in facing such difficulties: 'Similar problems surround the return of Russian Orthodox churches, as Metropolitan KIRILL recently complained. Unlike Lithuania, for example, where all Orthodox property was returned and the Lithuanian diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate became rich, in Russia the authorities have withheld property from the Russian Orthodox Church as well as the Catholics.'   According to Fr Shaikevich, lack of formal ownership hinders the revival of the Catholic Church in Russia: 'The repairs which we are doing  - and the church buildings, as a rule, are in a terrible state - are being done for the Russian Federation. When we ask the West for money to carry out church repairs, they ask us to whom the property belongs. When we answer: "the Russian Federation", prospective donors usually refuse to help us.' Fr Shaikevich is not optimistic that this situation will be easy to change: 'We need a law on restitution in order to restore the property situation of the Church to what it was before 1917,' he told Keston, 'however, the state does not want this since it would have to give back too much.' (END)