UKRAINE: Still No Return of Sevastopol Catholic Church.

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 6 July 2001

Despite the June visit to Ukraine by Pope John Paul II, the council in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol has not shifted its stance on the return of the city's Catholic church to the Roman Catholic parish, which has been battling to get it back for almost ten years. An article in the American newspaper USA Today on 25 June about the stalled church restitution failed to sway the chairman of the city council Vasili Parkhomenko, who regards the issue of the Catholic church as `political'. The parish priest, Fr Leonid Tkachuk, hopes that the Pope’s recent visit, and his meeting with the country's leaders, will ultimately lead to the church's return. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg is likely to rule in the summer whether or not to accept the parish's case.

In spite of the approval of the Sevastopol city administration and the positive attitude of officials at the Department of Religious Affairs, the return of the church has met strong opposition from Parkhomenko and the city council, without whose approval its return is impossible.

`No decision can be taken now,' Parkhomenko told Keston by telephone on 4 July. `A decision was made, then they appealed to the court and lost the case. Since then, no-one has appealed to us.' He said the recent papal visit would have no impact on the issue. He did not know about the article in USA Today because, he said, he `did not read that newspaper', and maintained that `the city council's decision to refuse the return of the church was supported by the Orthodox and by the city community.'

However, Parkhomenko told Keston he would be happy to allocate the Catholic parish a plot of land in the city if they would like to build a small church.

Built in 1911 with imperial approval and closed in 1936, the church was damaged during the Second World War. It has recently been used by the city's culture department as the Druzhba cinema, with public toilets built in place of the altar. Registered in 1995, the Sevastopol Roman Catholic parish of St Clement, which has no other building and meets in the priest's apartment, has 300 members. It has been refused the right to conduct Christmas and Easter services over the past few years (see KNS 12 April 2001).

The USA Today article by the journalist Ellen Hale was published on 25 June during Pope John Paul II's visit to Ukraine. Although Parkhomenko refused to give the paper an interview, telling Keston that `he did not have anything to say on this issue', on 29 June he set out his attitude to the Roman Catholic Church on local television.

In the broadcast, Parkhomenko openly spoke of his wariness of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope's visit. He said he `approaches with a certain caution those political factors that follow in the wake of the Catholic Church. In his time, [former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski, whom you know of, expressed himself rather more directly - "we have destroyed communism on Russian territory, and our next goal is Orthodoxy".'

He declared of the papal visit that `as a person with ideological convictions, I approach this visit with extreme caution, while on the other hand, as a person involved in high-level politics, I understand that all that serves the welfare of one's state, all that facilitates the rapprochement of one's people, all that leads away from discord must be used in this state at this difficult time. Any confrontation, any disorder in the sentiments, thoughts and actions of one's fellow citizens must, in as far as is possible, be excluded from today's politics.'

Speaking by telephone to Keston on 26 June, Fr Leonid Tkachuk, while enthusiastic about the USA Today article, was doubtful about the reaction of the city leadership, among whom, in his view, `the article would not be read'. In his interview with the paper, he said the city council has wielded `greater influence' locally than the president.

An official of the ECHR told Keston from Strasbourg on 5 July that the parish's application has still not been registered and was therefore unable to give any details on the case as `it is not in the public domain'.

Earlier, an official of the department for religious affairs at the Sevastopol city administration, Anatoli Sigora, told Keston that `justice is on the side of the Catholics, and if the city council wanted, the cinema could be re-located to any of the other 19 functioning cinemas in the city, particularly if you take into account the fact that there is a relatively low attendance at the Druzhba cinema.' He denied that there was an intolerant attitude in the city towards Roman Catholics, saying that such sentiments were directed only at Greek Catholics (see KNS 1 February 2001). However, a similar attitude has been shown towards Protestant communities connected with the American Baptist preachers who were expelled from Sevastopol in 2000 (see KNS 2 November 2000). (END)