CRIMEA: Lutherans Denied Rental of their Own Church

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 7 February 2001

The Lutheran parish in the southern Crimean town of Sudak - which has been unsuccessfully fighting to regain the German Lutheran church confiscated in 1930 - was told on the day it celebrated Christmas Eve that it was no longer allowed even to rent the building for services. The decision by the museum currently based in the church simultaneously halted its use by an Evangelical Christian/Baptist congregation. Both communities were forced to hold their Christmas services in hastily-arranged alternative premises. Since Christmas, neither congregation has made any progress in regaining use of the Lutheran church building, which has now been closed for repairs.

The management of the Genoese fortress museum suddenly ended the rental agreement on 24 December, the head of Sudak's German Lutheran community, Gennady Freier, told Keston News Service on 10 January. 'The lease did not specify an expiry date and the only condition for cancelling it was "non-observance of its terms",' Freier declared. 'Yet the museum just notified us when renovation works began on the church on 24 December. We did not pay rent, but the museum had no complaints against us.' He confirmed that the Baptist congregation, which held services in the church at different times by agreement with the museum, was also barred from further use of the building.

Freier told Keston the Lutheran community is continuing to insist on the return of the church, arguing that it 'must be used for its original purpose'. He stresses that the Baptists are 'in equal need' of a place to hold services. The 25-strong Sudak Lutheran community is now meeting in rented rooms in the town's German cultural centre, while the Baptists meet in the town's palace of culture.'The church is closed for restoration,' museum director Aleksandr Ferbei told Keston by telephone on 26 January. 'We want to put an exhibition hall in the church building.' There was therefore, he added, no question of discussing the future use of the building or an extension to the rental agreement which 'ran out on 31 December 2000'. He did not explain why the agreement was summarily cancelled a week before that date.

The Lutheran church, built by German settlers in 1887, was turned into a club after its closure in 1930. In August 1941, the town's German population was deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia. The church reopened later that year during the German occupation, but after 1944 was again used as a club. The building survived the war relatively unscathed: only the bell-tower, the school and the teacher's house alongside the church were destroyed. In 1974 the building was transferred to the Sofiya Kievskaya national heritage organisation.

The revived Lutheran community gained registration in 1994 and the following year lodged an official request to regain the building with the religious affairs administration of the Crimean Council of Ministers under the law on the return of churches, but received an official refusal. 'According to the decree on the Sofiya Kievskaya national heritage organisation,' the State Committee for Town Planning and Architecture declared, 'the transfer of buildings and equipment belonging to Sofiya Kievskaya to any organisations or establishments is not permitted.'

Ferbei conceded the Lutherans' 'moral right' to the building, confirming that the museum had no complaints against the Lutherans, but rejected its return. 'My own attitude to the question of returning the building is negative,' he told Keston, 'but notwithstanding that, the issue needs to be resolved at judicial level.'

Late last year President Leonid Kuchma ordered a re-evaluation of the list of religious buildings that were not to be returned. However, Nelya Kupovalskaya, director of the Sofiya Kievskaya organisation, told Keston by telephone from Kiev on 31 January that in the re-evaluation, `the Lutheran church had not been included among those to be returned to religious organisations'. She claimed that `nobody has officially applied to them with such a request'. During a visit to Sudak, she reported, she had discussed this issue with the mayor and `he offered them another building and they agreed'. She emphasised `that there were no official applications, but only oral ones'.

'No renovation work has started on the church yet,' Freier told Keston on 31 January. He believes the church has not been returned as the museum's management is holding out for compensation. 'Our situation is rather complex,' he adds, `and we would like someone influential to intervene in this dispute. Someone whose opinion would command people's attention.' (END)