KYRGYZSTAN: Deadlock over Registration of Catholic Parish.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 23 February 2001

The Church of St Michael the Archangel in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek was first non-European Catholic parish to be registered under Soviet rule. It is currently the only one in Kyrgyzstan, since 90 per cent of the German population has emigrated, but now - according to a decree on the registration of missions and foreign religious organisations – its activity is illegal. Keston News Service has learnt that failure to resolve the parish's legal status has obstructed the construction of a new church in the city centre.

Formerly under the diocese of Vilnius, Lithuania, and then Karaganda, Kazakhstan, following initial registration in 1969, since December 1997 the Bishkek parish has had the status of `missio sui juris', and its main priest, Vatican-appointed ordinarius Fr Aleksandr Kan, is juridically on a par with a bishop. On 14 February deputy chair of the Kyrgyz government's State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA), Natalya Shadrova, explained to Keston in Bishkek that the parish's direct subordination to a foreign centre, and especially its title of `missio', oblige it to comply with a 1996 presidential decree requiring `missions of foreign religious organisations' to register with her commission. `Missionary or other activity of a religious nature on the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic without proper registration,' states the decree, `is prohibited.'

According to Shadrova, the parish has not been registered as Fr Kan objects to the state's classification of it as a mission: `He considers it a local church.' However, churches with similar internal structures to the Catholics, such as the Orthodox, have raised no such objections, she maintained. On 13 February Fr Valentin Prikhodko, secretary to Orthodox Bishop Vladimir (Ikim) of Tashkent and Central Asia, confirmed to Keston that the Russian Orthodox Church was technically a foreign religious organisation in Kyrgyzstan.

In Shadrova's view, Fr Kan - brought up in a close-knit German parish in the Kazakh town of Karaganda in a climate of Soviet oppression - was suspicious of the state's demands on the church. On 12 February a Catholic source in Bishkek confirmed to Keston that Fr Kan had serious objections to the parish being termed a mission. Other factors prolonging the registration deadlock, he said, were poor personal relations between Shadrova and Fr Kan - `he has clashed with her several times' - and the fact that he was not fond of paperwork.

However, in the source's view, the creation by the Vatican of a `missio' in Kyrgyzstan meant that the pope was keen `to see something done here'. With more priests, he thought, `there would be 20 churches in no time', but without legal personality status it was difficult for the parish to invite them. Several years ago, the source told Keston, the church was offered land in central Bishkek (the congregation of approximately 100 currently worships in its 30-year-old church building in the outskirts), `but nothing has happened' – and construction is impossible without registration. In his view, Fr Kan's close attachment to the German Catholic tradition in Karaganda meant that he did not appreciate this desire for the church to be `more present and visible'.

Keston was unable to meet Fr Kan while in Bishkek since he was on an ad limina visit to Rome. The `Letter from the Vatican' column in the 18 February edition of the British newspaper Catholic Times, however, suggests that he does regard the Catholic presence in Kyrgyzstan as a mission. Catholic clergy in the country `continue to find small groups of Catholics in villages where no priest has been for 50 years,' it reports Fr Kan as saying, `we still have had no converts, but we are hoping.' (END)