UKRAINE: No Building Yet for Kharkov's Greek Catholics.

by Evgenia Mussuri, Keston News Service, 6 July 2001

Greek Catholics in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, who have been trying to build a church for the past four years, faced a setback during Pope John Paul II's visit to Ukraine in late June, when city authorities rescinded a building permit they had issued. The move came after a neighbouring state-run health institute protested against the construction. The Greek Catholic parish priest told Keston News Service he believed the local Orthodox bishop must have influenced the decision, but the institute's deputy director denied to Keston her institution had any connection with the Orthodox Church and claimed the site was on land belonging to the institute. City officials maintain the timing of the decision to halt construction during the pope's visit was coincidental.

After years of negotiating with city authorities, Greek Catholic leaders finally received permission in 1999 to begin building their church on land next to the State Institute for Mother and Child Health Protection. After various departments approved the site, the church proceeded to draw up plans. `All the geodesic and geological tests were conducted on this land,' Father Mykola, the Greek Catholic parish priest, told Keston from Kharkiv on 4 July. However, as soon as the plot was consecrated and a cross erected on the site of the future church, the Institute's managing board began protesting against the construction. `The water supply and sewerage systems were being worked on when the city made us stop.'

Kharkiv's Greek Catholic parish, which was registered in 1993, has been trying to get land to construct a church since 1997. Without a church of its own, the 300-strong parish uses the city's Roman Catholic Church three times a week. The parish proposed two potential sites, but city authorities concluded that the first location should accommodate holiday youth events, while the second is located in a park where an amusement ground is planned.

Objections to the current site by the Institute's directors are the Church's main obstacle. The Institute does not want the church as its neighbour and has asked the city administration to reclaim the site. The Institute, which operates a hospital, claims that having the church so close might cause `social damage' to patients.

`The Institute not only appealed to the city, but to the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as well,' Father Mykola claims. Metropolitan Nikodim `is a very powerful figure in Kharkiv, leaving city authorities little choice but to support the call.'

The institute denies any connection with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the dominant faith in Kharkiv. `We are against any church on this territory,' Elena Lehova, the Institute's deputy director, told Keston from Kharkiv on 5 July. `We are simply very cautions about the health of our patients.'

Father Mykola regards the latest moves as a `provocation'. `The whole situation is rather obscure,' he told Keston. `The city authorities said they would hold various youth events at the first site they suggested, but I have been in the city for seven years and have never seen any event take place there. Secondly, no amusement park has been built. And now they want to stop this construction.'

The Institute seems unlikely to back down. `First of all the plot is located on our land,' Lehova said. `Unfortunately, the documents certifying that have been mislaid.' She claims the Institute was fenced in 26 years ago and the plot given to the Greek Catholics is within this territory. Lehova also points out that the site is only some 50-60 metres away from hospital buildings where patients are treated. `We have all kinds of seriously ill people here, including cardiac and mental cases. A church means constant crowds of people, burial and wedding services, bells etc. This will do no good for the sick.'

Lehova hopes the Greek Catholics will change their mind and abandon the site. `The Church should adhere to ethical and highly moral principles,' she said. `Personally, both our director and I are atheists, and it is does not matter to us what kind of church is built. We are against any religious or cult building that close to us, period.'

While construction is suspended, the city authorities are trying to determine who is entitled to the land, hoping this will resolve the conflict. `The work was suspended on an oral decision, there was nothing in writing,' Aleksandr Serostanov, spokesman for Kharkiv city administration, told Keston on 5 July. `The question over the land existed before. It is a coincidence the decision coincided with the pontiff's visit to Ukraine.'

Serostanov described city policy as `wise', saying it allows different religions to construct churches. However, Father Mykola asserts that were the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to build anything on the site it would face no obstacles at all. (END)