UKRAINE - Crimea: Removal of Orthodox Crosses Continues

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 11 December 2000

The destruction of the Orthodox cross in the village of Mazanka, Simferopol region, during the night of 22/23 November, is the latest incident in the war of crosses on the peninsula (see KNS 15 November 2000). It is widely assumed that the cross - erected earlier in the year on public land to mark the parish patronal festival - was destroyed by local Crimean Tatars. The leadership of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and representatives of the Spiritual Leadership of Muslims in Crimea justify the destruction by arguing that their opposition to such public Christian symbols is being deliberately ignored. They are critical of the policies of the local diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, which they say has support of local officials.

Keston has learned that in the wake of the destruction of the Mazanka cross, Archbishop Lazar (Shvets) did not allow the local priest to attend a meeting of the Russian-speaking population and the parish the following day.

Almost all the crosses which have been demolished had been put up on public land, apart from the cross in the village of Kirovskoye, which was on the site where an Orthodox church is to be built. The diocese planned to erect crosses on public land (such as at the entrance to major Crimean towns, including

Yevpatoriya, Stary Krym and Sevastopol) and on hill tops (as in the village of Morskoye), and has also put up religious posters in public places. The Orthodox Church should have sought approval for this from the local authorities. In addition, it should have sought the approval of the local Crimean Tatar population, which is of Muslim background, for every case. The chairman of Crimea's Council for Religious Affairs Vladimir Maliborsky confirmed to Keston that the Church did not get this approval.

The Crimean press, which blames the Crimean Tatars entirely for these actions, has bitterly criticised the destruction of the crosses and used the incidents to insult the Crimean Tatars.

Father Paisy (Dmokhovsky), priest at St Vladimir's church in Sevastopol and secretary to the Crimean diocese in Sevastopol region, complained of the Crimean Tatar leaders' `openly aggressive' attitude to the Orthodox. `We are acting in accordance with our traditions,' he told Keston by telephone on 29 November, `and everything that has happened offends us deeply.' He claimed that articles in the Crimean Tatar press were also `offensive', but said that the Orthodox Church was not planning to respond.

Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev, however, doubts that there is any religious motivation for erecting the crosses. The diocesan leadership `is not governed by religious requirements' but intends to `create an atmosphere of inter-religious tension,' he told Keston in Simferopol on 28 November. He claimed that the archbishop is `obeying orders from his masters in Moscow and is obliged to carry them out'. Jemilev does not contest that the crosses have been removed by the Crimean Tatars but believes this was a `legitimate reaction' which the Orthodox foresaw.

Tensions between the Orthodox and Muslim religious communities over the erection of crosses have threatened to develop into a wider conflict. In Saki in western Crimea, conflict erupted in early November, forcing the local administration to intervene.

The Crimean government has been trying to resolve the dispute. It held an open session in Simferopol on 6 November attended by Archbishop Lazar, Crimean Muslim leader Mufti Emir Ali Efendi, Jemilev, Arsen Alchikov (representative of the Mejlis at the Spiritual Leadership of Muslims), Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Kunitsin, Vladimir Maliborsky of the CRA, as well as representatives from the interior ministry and other organisations. According to Jemilev, Maliborsky supported the Orthodox Church. Alchikov told Keston on 28 November that the meeting agreed that no new crosses should go up but that a commensurate number of Muslim symbols be erected. It also decided that Orthodox posters be removed after 7 January 2001 (Christmas Day in the Eastern Calendar).

Although the executive seems to want to calm the conflict, the Crimean legislature does not. The decision reached on 6 November should have been signed by all parties but according to Alchikov, `the following day Archbishop Lazar rejected this decision'. He claims this refusal followed a meeting between the archbishop and the chairman of the Crimean Supreme Soviet, Leonid Hrach, who `influenced the decision of the archbishop'. Hrach also reportedly supports the diocese in its plans to rebuild the Orthodox cathedral in the centre of Simferopol. Jemilev too laments the diocese's refusal to abide by what was agreed. `Despite our agreement, Archbishop Lazar continued his policy of erecting crosses in the region.' (END)