UKRAINE - CRIMEA: Sevastopol Catholics take Church Return Refusal to Strasbourg

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 29 January 2001

After battling unsuccessfully for the return of its church for over five years - including being turned down by the Ukrainian Supreme Court - the Roman Catholic parish of St Clement's in the southern Crimean city of Sevastopol has taken its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The city administration believes the Catholics' demands are within the law but the city council, which has the final say, is refusing to return the church, which now houses a cinema. Asked by Keston News Service where the Catholics should hold their services, Viktor Yevlashkin, an adviser to the city council chairman, replied: `That's their problem and we haven't put that question to them.' Parish priest Father Leonid Tkachuk is particularly upset that public toilets are still operating where the altar used to stand.

Having exhausted all legal avenues in Ukraine, the parish submitted its case to the European Court on 6 November last year. In its suit, it is demanding not only the return of the church but compensation for moral loss of 840,000 hryvnyas (140,000 US dollars). A spokeswoman for the Court confirmed to Keston from Strasbourg on 26 January that the parish's application has been received, but reported that it had not yet been registered. The court - whose jurisdiction covers Ukraine as a member of the Council of Europe - will then have to rule on whether the case is admissible.

Built in 1911, St Clement's church was closed and confiscated in 1936, when its priest was arrested. It was then used to house an electricity sub-station. Partially destroyed during the Second World War, it was afterwards rebuilt as the Druzhba children's cinema. Father Tkachuk told Keston on 22 January that in addition to continued use of toilets on the site of the altar the church `is still being defiled by the screening of inferior films that are far from being children's films'.

Despite the return of confiscated religious property in Ukraine and the persistent efforts of local Catholics - including more than 50 appeals to local officials, the Ukrainian president and Pope John Paul II - the parish has had no success. Legal cases brought by the parish in 1999 and 2000 were unsuccessful. On 17 May 2000 the board for civil cases at the Supreme Court turned down the parish's appeal against the city council's refusal, on 25 February 2000, to return the church.

Registered in 1995, the 300-strong parish has to meet for services in the priest's apartment, which cannot accommodate all those wishing to attend. `The community has been allowed to hold services in the church only twice - in 1998 and 1999,' Father Tkachuk complained.

Asked by Keston on 23 January why the church had not been returned, Yevlashkin replied that it was not a church but a children's cinema, and that the church and its foundations had been destroyed during the war. However, a document from the Sevastopol State Archive (of which Father Tkachuk showed Keston a copy) disproves this: `According to a certificate of technical condition dated 20 October 1958, the church building has retained its walls and foundations largely intact (80%-100%) and is deemed suitable for restoration and reconstruction.'

Yevlashkin went on to cite another underlying reason for the refusal. `According to article 21 of the principles of the law on culture, the closure of cultural establishments is not permitted in cases where premises are taken from them and transferred into the possession of, or for the free use of, religious organisations.' However, in Sevastopol, the Church of St Peter and St Paul, previously the city's Palace of Culture, has been formally handed over to the Orthodox, and services are held there on feast days.

Anatoli Sigora, chairman of the religious affairs department in the Sevastopol city administration, confirmed to Keston on 23 January that `justice is on the side of the Catholics, and if the city council wished, the cinema could be relocated to any of the other 19 functioning cinemas in the city, particularly given that attendance at the Druzhba cinema is quite low'.

Under current law, Sevastopol's cultural establishments are under the jurisdiction of the city administration, but the city council must agree any transfer of one of these establishments. The city council clearly has different plans for the building. According to Father Tkachuk, it was restored a year ago at the expense of the city budget and a hard-currency exchange point is now located there. (END)