UKRAINE - CRIMEA: Return of Religious Buildings to Karaites Expected.

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 17 August 2001

After the events of 25 July at the Uspensky monastery in Bakhchiserai (see KNS 13 August 2001), the Crimean authorities have decided to return kenassahs – Karaite religious buildings – to the Karaites, who have for a long time been trying to reclaim them. The responsible official told Keston that the resolution to this effect is only in draft form, and declined to give any details, but confirmed that the buildings of two kenassahs in the Bakhchiserai historical reservation would be returned to the 'Karaite Spiritual Administration'.

The Karaites are an offshoot of Judaism, who are not ethnically Jewish but are Tatar and recognise only the Torah. They are a historic religion of the Crimean peninsula, numbering today about 800 believers in the peninsula. For two years they have been trying to secure the return of the Karaite kenassahs on Chufut Kale, a mountain plateau close to the Maryam-Dere valley where the Uspensky monastery and the Zynjryly medresseh are situated (see KNS 16 May 2000).

According to the minutes of the 26 July session of the Crimean government after the clashes of Crimean Tatars with the OMON riot police on 25 July, the chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs of Crimea, Vladimir Maliborsky, and V. Ormeli were instructed to draft a decree of the Council of Ministers 'On making the former Karaite kenassahs available for use to the Karaite Spiritual Administation'.

'Two kenassahs will be returned,' Maliborsky told Keston from Simferopol in a telephone interview on 15 August. 'The form of transfer has not yet been determined,' he added, declining to state the form of ownership under which the buildings will be made available, since, as he said, 'the decision is still being worked on'.

Although the congregational chairman Aleksandr Babajan complained to Keston in April 2000 that believers attending worship had been charged for entry to the reservation, Maliborsky suggested that this was a 'misunderstanding' and stated that 'everything is provided free to the believers'.

According to Babajan none of the buildings has been returned to the ownership of the believers. The provisions of current legislation on religion leave it to the discretion of the local authorities to decide how to implement the return of religious buildings – either transferring ownership or making them available for use.

In the event of the kenassahs in the Bakhchiserai district being returned, the religious practice of the three religions historically present in the district – the Karaite faith, Orthodoxy and Islam – will be revived side by side. The fate of the kenassah in Simferopol remains unclear. This historic building is occupied by the state radio committee and is gradually disintegrating for lack of funds. (END)