RUSSIA: Belgorod Catholics Finally to Receive Registration?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 30 May 2001

Catholics in the southern Russian city of Belgorod, who have unsuccessfully tried to register their parish for over two years, may be on the verge of success. At a meeting at the local department of justice in mid-May attended by Keston News Service, department head Vladimir Karnaukhov promised that the parish `will definitely be registered', despite what he and his colleagues claimed were `problems' with the application. Without registration, it cannot make legal claim to the small former Catholic church in the centre of the city. The region's department of culture has meanwhile transferred the building, currently empty, to the local Orthodox diocese for use as a museum-cum-library.

At the justice department's 15 May all-day open meeting devoted to the religious situation in Belgorod region, department assistant head Anatoli Yevdoshchenko announced that the Catholic parish had been a recipient of one of only two registration refusals in the region since its documentation `does not accord with Russian law'. Specifically, Yevdoshchenko cited omission of a ruling organ in the parish's charter and the use of a private flat as a legal address in defiance of complaints by neighbours about disturbance from the number of visiting parishioners.

Questioned by Keston during the course of the same day, the official in charge of registration of religious organisations in Belgorod region, Gyulnara Aliyeva, went to considerable length to stress that there were `real violations of the law' in the Catholics' registration application. According to her, the parish had failed to include sufficient copies of certain documents and elsewhere submitted photocopies rather than originals: `I don't know why they relate to re-registration in this way.'

Aliyeva told Keston that the other registration refusal mentioned by Yevdoshchenko had been to a parish of Old Believers of the Pomorye Concord. Because the parishioners were elderly and unable to submit a proper application, said Aliyeva, she had helped them ensure that their paperwork met all legal requirements, and the parish had since been registered. She was unable to say why Old Believers should benefit from such an approach while Catholics should not.

Fr Krzysztof Kempa, who ministers to Belgorod's Catholics, is parish priest in the neighbouring region of Kursk, where the situation for Catholics could not be more different. Visiting Kursk on 19 May, Keston found members of the 200-strong Catholic parish restoring the large Church of the Assumption, which was returned to them in 1997. Kursk's plenipotentiary for religious affairs, Aleksandr Shapovalov, told Keston that benevolence towards the parish had been shown both by Aleksandr Rutskoi, who as governor had insisted on the swift return to the Catholics of the then house of culture, and Archbishop Yuvenali (Tarasov) of Kursk and Rylsk, who had presented the parish with a large wooden crucifix (viewed by Keston).

In Fr Kempa's absence, head of the Kursk parish council Nadezhda Roshinskaya told Keston that there was `nothing wrong' with the Belgorod Catholics' registration application, which followed that of other Catholic parishes in Russia. `There is no basis to refuse us. When the department of justice says something is wrong, we ask what we should do, but they constantly change their reasons for refusal.' Roshinskaya stressed that Belgorod's parish of some 40 members was very keen to register: `They understand that they can't claim the former Catholic church until they are registered.'

On 15 May Keston asked Belgorod's plenipotentiary for religious affairs, Aleksei Glushchenko, whether the decision to transfer the church to the Orthodox would not cause further stand-offs over it, such as when Fr Kempa's predecessor, Fr Jozef Guncaga, celebrated mass in front of the building during 1998 and was later arrested. Unlike the neighbours cited by Yevdoshchenko who complained of numerous parishioners, Glushchenko dismissed the parish's impact: `Three people hardly constitutes a mass.' He confirmed that the building was the property of the Ministry of Culture, whose local department had transferred it to the Orthodox diocese for its long term use. Glushchenko's comments came despite Karnaukhov's public promise the same day that the Catholics would be registered, implying that the diocese's term of lease may yet be cut short.

In an interview shown during a report of the justice department meeting on Belgorod television news that evening, Karnaukhov spoke of the religious situation in Belgorod region in glowing terms. `A representative came from England and was satisfied that we have freedom of conscience in our region,' he claimed in an apparent reference to the presence at the meeting of Keston's correspondent, although Keston's correspondent had expressed no such view. (END)