UKRAINE: Moscow Patriarchate Fears Expulsion but Authorities Deny It.

by Evgenia Mussuri, Keston News Service, 8 May 2001

Believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate fear that the local authorities will deprive them of one of their only two remaining churches in Ukraine's western Lviv region. The parish priest of St Volodymyr's church, Father Volodymyr Kuseh, told Keston News Service from Lviv that two Orthodox churches of different jurisdictions are next to each other on the same site, but the Lviv authorities recognise the rival Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate as owners of both and are threatening to evict his congregation. `We do not know what to expect because the authorities may come at any moment and demand that we vacate the building,' Father Volodymyr declared. `Unofficially they say they will tear down the church very soon, but of course they would not admit it officially.' The deputy head of Lviv regional administration admitted that there is a `property dispute', but denied to Keston that the Moscow Patriarchate congregation would be expelled, without explaining how the dispute will be resolved.

St Volodymyr's church is a tiny wooden chapel, two metres high, five metres wide and ten metres long, which can hold no more than a hundred people. `This is a very small building,' Father Volodymyr told Keston by telephone on 4 May. `It is not enough for those who attend services, it is always overcrowded and people often faint during services.' It adjoins the bigger church - also called St Volodymyr's - belonging to the Kiev Patriarchate, which has a capacity of about 2,000. The Moscow Patriarchate's other church in Lviv, St George's, can hold 300 worshippers.

Father Volodymyr said that due to confusion at the city administration with registration of the land, their church turned out to be in an illegal position. `We appealed to the city administration to give or sell us a plot of land where we could construct our own church in August last year, but there has been no response so far. They are still considering the request.'

To improve the situation the Moscow Patriarchate priests brought in construction materials to enlarge the church, but local authority officials banned this, coming to the site and telling the priest to remove them. Instead the city administration issued a decree on 22 February granting the Kiev Patriarchate the right to start reconstruction, in the course of which the Moscow Patriarchate's chapel is planned to be demolished to make way for a new church.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the process of redistributing places of worship and land began. During 1991, the area's Catholic and Orthodox congregations clashed over the way church property was being divided. Local authorities tried to soften the conflict by granting the Orthodox community two church buildings on the same site.

All was well until 1993, when a rift formed within Ukraine's Orthodoxy and the Ukrainian Church of the Kiev Patriarchate was founded. The land and both churches were registered in the name of the Kiev Patriarchate, the branch widely supported by Ukrainian nationalists. Father Volodymyr said the problem hinges on who the authorities consider are the successors of the Orthodox community of 1991. `If we bore the name Kiev Patriarchate, we would be favoured,' he maintained.

The deputy head of Lviv regional administration, Volodymyr Geresh, told Keston on 5 May that the Moscow Patriarchate priests had not been authorised to bring in building materials. He tried to play down the conflict, pledging that the Moscow Patriarchate congregation would not be expelled. `The whole conflict is merely a property problem and nobody is going to throw the Moscow Patriarchate believers onto the street,' Geresh said. `In 1991 there was a split and the land was registered in the name of the Kiev Patriarchate, while the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate occupied the chapel unilaterally.'

Moscow Patriarchate anxiety was fanned by the press and public opinion in Lviv, a stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism where there is often hostility toward anything Russian. `Some papers and even public figures express their dissatisfaction with the very existence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate,' Father Volodymyr complained. He claimed that some public figures were trying to manipulate public opinion and tie the Pope's visit to Ukraine in June to the conflict. `They created the image that we are against the visit of John Paul II and therefore we should be eliminated,' he declared. `This is untrue. The only thing we want is to have our own church building, just like any other citizens of Ukraine.'

Lviv's Department for Religious Affairs denies a controversy exists. `We know nothing about it,' an official at the department told Keston by telephone on 4 May. `We do not even know what church you are talking about. This is all made up by the press.' Asked to identify herself, the official put down the telephone. (END)