CRIMEA: RESOLUTION IN SIGHT FOR WAR OF CROSSES?

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 15 November 2000

In the wake of the demolition of the Morskoye cross (see separate KNS article), two crosses have also been demolished in the village of Kirovskoye in the district adjoining Morskoye and at the Inkerman monastery in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. No one has claimed responsibility for the demolitions. However, as the long-running war of crosses intensifies in Crimea, new crosses have been set up in the suburbs of Feodossya in south east Crimea and in Stary Krym in the south of the peninsula.

The Morskoye demolition was condemned by Crimean parliamentary speaker Leonid Hrach, who accused the Crimean Tatars of disrespect for other religions and the law. Mustafa Jemilev, chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, countered by declaring that the cross should not have been erected in the first place because it was a potential source of conflict. `We condemn the construction of these crosses as violence and in the same manner we condemn the destruction of these crosses,' he told a local paper Den. `I don't understand, however, why the crosses were put up in the first place.'

However, a resolution may be in sight. A source in the Crimean Orthodox diocese told Keston News Service that Crimean Muslim leader Mufti Emir Ali Efendi and Archbishop Lazar (Shvets) of Crimea and Simferopol held a three-hour meeting in early November. They agreed that if Archbishop Lazar stopped placing crosses then the Mufti would re-erect those which were demolished. The Mufti reportedly declared that his decision depended on the endorsement of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis.

Archbishop Lazar announced earlier in the year his plans to erect 1,000 crosses in Crimea to mark the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth and the thousandth anniversary of the baptism of Rus. Crimea's top muftis issued a statement condemning what they regarded as such a one-sided view of the religious life and history of the Crimean peninsula which they said hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.

Speaking to Keston on 29 August, Jemilev described Archbishop Lazar's actions as `aggressive' and `provocative'. He pointed out that the Mejlis had several times received complaints from local people about the placing of crosses and threatened to dismantle them unilaterally. `But you understand what consequences it might lead to,' he had warned. `It seems that all this is being done deliberately to create conflict.'

Officials of the Crimean diocese - which is under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate - rejected such claims. A statement of 31 July faxed to Keston in Crimea declared that setting up the crosses did not represent `the imposition of a certain ideology, but restoration of what had been lost'. The document claimed that the Crimean Orthodox clergy were tolerant over the construction of mosques and the singing of muezzins calling Muslims to prayer `though it sounds both late in the evening and early in the morning, and not only in the places of the Crimean Tatar settlements'. `Respecting Muslims' feelings, we are entitled to count on respect of our historical traditions.'

The Crimean Tatars received the support of Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, during a June visit to the Crimea. In a subsequent interview with Keston in Kiev on 28 September, Patriarch Filaret explained: `I believe Archbishop Lazar should not have gone into that conflict with the Muslims. Why? Because Muslims will never convert to Orthodoxy and Orthodox will never become Muslims and Archbishop Lazar's actions there are just unreasonable.' He declared that such actions merely aroused further, avoidable inter-religious confrontation. `Creating conflicts with the Crimean Tatars does not do any good. Since they are citizens of Ukraine, we have to live in peace with them.'

Viktor Bondarenko, the head of the State Committee for religious affairs of Ukraine, has also been brought into the crosses dispute. `This problem is serious and I think that it must be resolved by leaders of religious organisations,' he told Keston in Kiev on 28 September. However, he downplayed the offence the crosses were causing to the Muslim community and believed it was just an excuse for the Muslims to leave the Interconfessional Council. `Those six or eight crosses set up in the Crimea are not the real reason for such a declaration. The Crimea is the cradle of Christianity for the whole Eastern Slavonic world as can be read about in any history textbook.' (END)