UKRAINE - CRIMEA: Catholics Denied Easter Celebration in Own Church.

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 12 April 2001

The city authorities in the southern Crimean city of Sevastopol have denied the Roman Catholic community of St Clement permission to conduct Easter services in the Catholic church, which is still being used as a cinema, Fr Leonid Tkachuk, the community’s priest, told Keston News Service by telephone from Sevastopol on 10 April. The community has been battling for the last five years for the return of the church (see KNS 29 January 2001) and this refusal comes in spite of promises to reconsider the question. Sevastopol’s Orthodox clergy are divided over the return of the church.

Fr Leonid, who is also the bishop’s representative in Crimea, told Keston that the community would have to conduct services on the street in front of the church building. ‘We have appealed in writing to the head of the Sevastopol city administration Leonid Zhunko for permission for a ‘one-off’ service to mark the day of Christ’s Resurrection,’ he said. But the 5 March letter (of which Keston has a copy) was forwarded to the city’s department of culture, which is responsible for the building. Fr Leonid showed Keston a copy of the 22 March reply from department head Aleksandr Rudometov, which states: ‘because of the fact that the Druzhba cinema functions as a cultural resource, according to a decision of the seventh session of the city council (24.12.98) it may only be used for its primary purpose, and it is not possible to offer it for the holding of services on 15 April’. Rudometov also stresses that ‘the community’s request was denied in 1999 and 2000 for this same reason.’

Keston tried to telephone Rudometov on 11 April, but was told at the culture department that he would not be there ‘until May’. His deputy Lyudmila Bogatyreva also proved to be unavailable.

On 28 March the community of St Clement wrote to the chairman of the Lenin district state administration of Sevastopol Mr Shilovtsev to inform him of their intention to hold ‘a solemn Easter Liturgy’ on 15 April 2001, from 8.30-11am, outside the Catholic church, with around 500 people taking part.

The issue of the return of the church building to the community was at the centre of discussions during a meeting on 8 February between the Papal Nuncio in Ukraine, Archbishop Mikola Esterovich, and the Sevastopol city authorities. Fr Leonid, who was present at the meeting, said that the authorities promised to ‘reconsider the issue’. Keston tried to telephone the head of Sevastopol city’s state administration Leonid Zhunko on 11 April to find out what progress there had been since the meeting in Sevastopol, but was told that he was again on leave.

Head of the religious department of the Sevastopol administration Oleg Kotlyarov told Keston on 11 April that the cinema management was worried that the believers would not leave the building again if they were allowed in to hold a service: ‘They are afraid of a confrontational situation’.

The Inter-Confessional Council of Crimea sent a written appeal on 29 March to Sevastopol city administration and Sevastopol city council for ‘a positive resolution’ to the question of returning ‘the Catholic church at number 1, Schmidt street, to the Catholic religious community of Sevastopol’. According to this document (of which Keston has a copy) its signatories, one of whom is Fr Leonid, suggest that ‘to adopt such a resolution would help to create interconfessional harmony, unity and historical justice’. The appeal was also signed by Metropolitan Lazar and Adventist pastor V. Petryuk. Fr Leonid told Keston that there had been no reaction so far.

It appears that the Orthodox are not unanimous in feeling that the church building should be returned to the Catholics. Fr Leonid told Keston that recently a programme had been broadcast on the local television channel in which some members of Sevastopol’s Orthodox community stated their opposition to the return of the building.

An Orthodox source told Keston that when the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Mikola visited Crimea on 8-9 February, pickets would not allow him, his escort hieromonk Paisi Dmokhovsky, the representative of the metropolitanate in Sevastopol, or Fr Leonid, on to the territory of the Inkerman monastery of St Clement, which forms part of the Crimean diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The pickets were manned by lay-people at the monastery gates. The source said that the incident had led to the dismissal of the superior at the monastery, Fr Ilian.

Kotlyarov confirmed that the protest at the monastery had been organised by the Sevastopol centre of Orthodox enlightenment and was ‘directly linked to the proposed visit by Pope John Paul II to Ukraine’. In his opinion, Fr Ilian ‘had failed to obey an instruction from the ruling bishop’, and had been punished for it. Commenting on the issue of opposition from the Orthodox to the return of the church, he noted that he ‘wouldn’t want to draw conclusions about the attitude of the Orthodox clergy on the basis of isolated incidents’. (END)