RUSSIA: Orthodox Bishop Bars Catholic Church Construction?

Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 22 April 2002

Authorities in the western Russian city of Pskov have halted the construction of a Catholic church in the wake of a complaint by the local Orthodox bishop, Keston News Service has learnt. Archbishop Yevsevi (Savvin) of Pskov and Velikie Luki appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the region's administration Yevgeni Mikhailov with a request "not to allow the destroyers of our homeland and nation - the Roman Pope and Catholicism - to triumph on Holy Pskov soil". On 3 April, soon after the archbishop wrote his letter, the city authorities issued an instruction halting the building.

On 16 April, at a meeting between the parish priest Father Krzysztof Karolewski and the head of the Pskov regional administration, the latter promised that the church would be built, in accordance with the law. However, it seems the Catholics will have to agree to changes to the church plans, and in particular to a reduction in the height of the cupola.

The Holy Trinity parish has existed in Pskov since 1803. A church was consecrated in 1857, but was closed in 1934. The parish was revived in 1992 and work began in 2000 on construction of a church on its former site in a historic part of the city, by the old Catholic cemetery. Building was planned to finish towards the end of 2002.

According to Pskov Catholics, on 12 March Archbishop Yevsevi held a diocesan meeting, at which a decision was taken to send a letter to President Putin asking him to ban construction of the church. All the senior clergy present signed the letter.

"Taking advantage of the fruits of contemporary democracy," Archbishop Yevsevi wrote in his appeal to Mikhailov, "the enemies of our state are preparing for us a new expansion of Catholicism which, once allowed onto Russian territory, subsequently led to military operations." To prove this thesis, the example is cited of the invasion by the Teutonic knights, whom St Aleksandr Nevsky defeated at Pskov, and the Pope's decision in February to elevate the status of the apostolic administrations to the level of diocese (see KNS 12 February 2002). "We still have not managed to recover from that upheaval, and the Catholics are already preparing new divisions and unrest for us. The construction of a Catholic church at Pskov, which suffered so greatly from the Catholic hordes, is a blasphemy and an insult to the memory of our holy ancestors."

Archbishop Yevsevi's appeal to President Putin was similar. "Catholics should not be allowed to work freely in our country&ldots; We must understand that the Catholics are not our benefactors. They have brought nothing good or useful to any nation. Wherever they have come, there has been ruin, division and destruction. We are seeing this now in Ukraine, in Yugoslavia and in other countries." The archbishop asked the president "to take all possible measures to prevent the Roman Catholic Church from realising its expansionist goals". He argued in his appeal that the construction of Catholic churches should be limited to embassies, missions and consulates in order to meet the spiritual needs of representatives of a foreign country, taking into account the number of members of the community in question.

On 2 April, the chief administration for building, architecture and communal housing management at the Pskov regional administration unexpectedly sent the Holy Trinity parish an order demanding "a re-consideration of the plan by the town planning council, with the participation of all interested organisations and persons". The following reasons were cited: the documentation was not in accordance with the chief administration for Civil defence and Special Situations; there was no documentation for "concealed works"; and there were no results of a public consultation about the construction of the Catholic church.

Construction was halted by instruction No. 11 of 3 April, issued by the state architectural and building inspectorate of Pskov region, giving the same reasons. However, Father Karolewski insists in his written response that an opinion poll was carried out before construction work began, and that all the necessary documentation had been presented. According to the Catholics, Archbishop Yevsevi demanded that the city authorities should withdraw permission for building work and refer the plan to the town planning council for re-consideration with the participation of diocesan representatives.

"I do not understand the attempt to halt construction of the church, which is the only one in Pskov region," Father Karolewski wrote to the head of the Pskov regional administration. "In Bialystok [in Poland], construction work is under way on five Orthodox churches simultaneously," he noted.

A priest at the Pskov parish, Father Vladimir Timoshenko, told Keston on 16 April that a meeting between the parish priest and the head of the Pskov regional administration had taken place that day, and that the latter had promised that the church would be built, in accordance with the law. But it seems that the Catholics will have to agree to changes to the church plan, and in particular to a reduction in the height of the cupola.

On 18 April, an official of the Pskov regional administration Artem Tasalov told Keston that construction of the church would continue, but that "currently, permission has only been given for construction of the residential part of the complex, while the documentation for the church still has to be put in order". Tasalov believed the architect was to blame because he failed to submit a draft plan of the church's cupola, but within one and half months, the draft would be submitted and permission would be given. Asked by Keston whether Archbishop Yevsevi had softened his stance, Tasalov said that, according to the head of the administration who had spoken with the Orthodox hierarch, the archbishop was not now objecting so strongly to the construction of the Catholic church.

The secretary of the Russian Catholic Bishops' Conference, Father Igor Kovalevsky told Keston on 10 April that Pskov's Catholics are convinced the church will be built. "We have been set a precedent - the Orthodox archbishop has asked the authorities to prevent the development of the Catholic Church in Russia, and has appealed to the president, who is guarantor of the Constitution and must ensure the rights and freedoms of citizens." (END)