UKRAINE - CRIMEA: Conflict Over the Fate Of the Madrassah.

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 13 August 2001

On 25 July a demonstration organised by the Crimean Tartar's representative body, the Mejlis, took place in Bakhchisarai, although on 24 July its demands had been met and the Crimean government had cancelled a "secret" decision regarding buildings claimed simultaneously by the Zyndzhyrly madrassah and a neighbouring monastery of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). The demonstration began peacefully but ended in a clash between demonstrators and OMON riot police near the Monastery of the Assumption. Keston News Service has learned that an official commission has been formed to settle controversial issues.

On 27 March the Council of Ministers of the Crimea took a "secret" decision, to hand over part of the buildings on the site of the former psycho-neurological institution (see KNS 19 July 2001). Learning of the decision in early July, the Spiritual Board of Crimean Muslims and the Mejlis appealed to the government to cancel all previous decisions – otherwise they would organise a protest demonstration on 25 July. The day before the demonstration and a few days before the resignation of the government took effect, the government satisfied the demands and decided to form a commission "to settle the issue of the transfer of the buildings".

"We learned about the resolution, but the demonstration took place on a much smaller scale than had been planned," Arsen Alchikov, the representative of the Mejlis and the Mufti's office, told Keston. The demonstration was picketed by the Russian Community of Crimea and representatives of the Cossacks, most of whom, according to Alchikov, were "not sober". "The demonstration was peaceful", then demonstrators decided to go to pray at the grave of Gazy-Mansur, a companion of the prophet Mohammed. On the road passing the monastery they were blocked by a detachment of OMON. "The clash happened spontaneously," Alchikov said. "Trying to work something out the Mufti and I met the head of the monastery, Father Siluan (Makei), but he said that the police and Cossacks were not under his orders." The incident was defused, Alchikov pointed out, when "we appealed to the crowd asking them to disperse peacefully".

"The Church has always maintained that both state and Church law should be observed and that nobody's interests should be violated," stated Metropolitan Lazar (Shvets) as quoted to Keston by phone from Simferopol on 9 August by the secretary of the Crimean diocese, Father Aleksandr Yakushechkin. He confirmed that representatives of the diocese "took part in the discussion" of the March resolution, "but did not influence the content of the decision". According to Father Aleksandr, "the diocese has all the archive documents which would enable the monastery's former boundaries to be restored".

On 26 July the government held a meeting in Bakhchisarai at which the formation of several commissions was minuted, that were instructed to analyse "all state documents issued to the monastery on the right to use the land and buildings"; "to carry out an expert evaluation of archive documents presented by the interested parties"; and "to present proposals for the use of the vacated site and the buildings of the health centre".

At the demonstration an appeal was adopted addressed to Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and other officials. It proposes that "the whole territory of the former mental institution and its buildings" should be transferred to the Ministry of Education in order that a lycee should be established – a school in which the Crimean Tatars would play an active part, and that the places of worship should be handed over to the religious communities. Describing what had happened as "a planned provocation", the demonstrators insist that they "have sufficient intelligence and wisdom to direct their indignation not against another ethnic group or another religion but against the authorities and individual officials".

On 20 July, the Russian Community of Crimea adopted an appeal signed by its chairman V. Terekhov describing the Crimean Tatars' actions as an attempt "to take away from a Russian Orthodox monastery the land and buildings that had been returned to it" and called for everybody to come on the day of the demonstration to the monastery to express their support" and "to resist the blatant blackmail of extremists, unbridled hooligans and national-chauvinists".

Although historically Orthodoxy, Islam and the Karaite faith have lived peacefully side by side for centuries in this district of Crimea, Alchikov is not optimistic, since, as he said, the government has changed and now the commission includes "representatives of our fierce enemy Grach" (the Speaker of the Crimean Supreme Rada). (END)