CRIMEA: CRIMEAN TATARS DEMOLISH ORTHODOX CROSS

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 15 November 2000

A simmering dispute between Orthodox and the Crimean Tatars over the Orthodox diocese's decision to erect crosses all over the peninsula came to a head on 25 October, when a group of Crimean Tatars destroyed a cross put up four hours earlier in the village of Morskoye near the town of Sudak on Crimea's southern coast. On 26 October about 400 people gathered - Orthodox and Muslims - but there was no bloodshed. The dispute hinges on whether the Orthodox diocese has the right to erect large crosses on public land which it believes it has the right to do as an expression of religious liberty but which the local Muslim community considers an affront (see separate KNS article).

All sides linked the demolition of the Morskoye cross to the decision of the Spiritual Leadership of the Muslims of the Crimea to suspend membership in the Crimean Interconfessional Council in response to the policy of the Crimean diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) to put up crosses and placards across the peninsula.

The Morskoye executive council gave permission to the Orthodox community of St John of Kronstadt to place the cross on the hill which dominates the village on 21 December 1999. However, the nine-metre cross was put up only at noon on 24 October. Council leader Leonid Kryssov claimed to Keston on 6 November that among those taking part in last December's council meeting that approved the placing of the cross was one deputy who was also chairman of the local Mejlis `and at that time he had no objections'.

The local priest, Father Valentin Romushin, told Keston on 6 November that the group of Crimean Tatars said to have been responsible for demolishing the cross was apprehended by the police but released by the evening. He added that villagers held a spontaneous rally that night. Despite a meeting between representatives from the Russian-speaking population and the Crimean Tatars, no compromise was found.

A Crimean Tatar resident of the village told Keston that before the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 only a few Russian families lived among the Tatars. Now, Father Romushin reported, there are approximately 250 Crimean Tatars and 1600 Russian-speaking residents.

`We have been deeply hurt,' the chairman of the local Muslim community Alim Emirsujunov complained to Keston, `we felt as if we were buried'. He confirmed they had seen the cross being put up, tried to intervene, but `failed to find the priest'. People were acting `spontaneously', maintained Shaib Mennanov, the former deputy of the local Mejlis and the local mullah' son. `Had there been no cross there would have been no problems,' he stressed.

`We have not kept our intention to place the cross a secret,' Father Romushin told Keston. Preparations lasted for almost a year, a model was made and `it was well known'. He confirmed that he had been aware of Muslim unhappiness about the cross, but added that on the eve of the event he had met Archbishop Lazar (Shvets) and the latter `knew that the cross was going to be placed'. The solemn consecration was scheduled for a later date.

Menannov declares that the Muslims insist on returning to the `starting point', while Kryssov asserts that `the cross will be put up again by all means'. Father Romushin suggests three options: restoration of the cross at the original spot, placement of an Islamic symbol next to it as a `sign of reconciliation' or relocation of the cross upon the agreement of the local Tatar community to build an Orthodox church in the village centre. The last option is opposed by Tatars claiming the same plot of land for housing.

Father Romushin declared that `they will not sue the offenders if the Tatars do not object to the church being built where the Orthodox community wants it'. However, Kryssov declared `they are going to sue the offenders'. But he admitted that he had not been aware of the declaration of the Muslims' Spiritual Leadership.

A meeting of those concerned, including the Crimean Muslim leader Mufti Emir Ali Efendi, Archbishop Lazar, the Crimean authorities and interior ministry bodies postponed the final decision until the end of November. According to Kryssov, Vladimir Maliborsky, chairman of the Crimean Committee for Religious affairs, has expressed indignation. `There are 48 confessions,' he quoted Maliborsky as saying, `and if we were to ask permission from each of them before doing anything we would get nowhere.'(END)