RUSSIA: Construction of Pskov Catholic Church Resumes.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 24 September 2002

The controversial construction of a Catholic church in the western Russian city of Pskov resumed on 17 September, parish priest Fr Krzysztof Karolewski told Keston News Service in Pskov on 19 September.

Work on the church was suddenly halted earlier this year (see KNS 22 April 2002). On 2 April Pskov regional building, architecture and communal housing department demanded that the entire plans be reconsidered by the town planning council "with the participation of all interested organisations and persons". This request came just four days after the very same department informed the parish that its plans had for the most part been approved.

According to Fr Karolewski, permission to build the church was originally granted in 1998, when the parish chose the current construction site from a selection proposed by the local authorities. In the autumn of 1999, he said, definite plans for the building were approved, and construction began in June 2001. "No one complained" throughout this period, pointed out Fr Karolewski.

The local authorities' unexpected U-turn, however, occurred shortly after local Russian Orthodox Archbishop Yevsevi (Savvin) of Pskov and Velikiye Luki wrote to Pskov regional governor Yevgeni Mikhailov on 12 March requesting his "intervention in order to prevent the construction of a grandiose Catholic church in the historical part of Pskov". The proposed new Catholic church, wrote the archbishop, is "a blasphemy and an insult to the memory of our holy ancestors, a slap in the face to our Orthodox people and the secular authorities". On 15 May Russian religious affairs supplement NG-Religii reported Governor Mikhailov as explaining that construction of the Catholic church had been halted as a result of the archbishop's communication.

Interviewed by Keston in Pskov on 19 September, Dmitri Khritonenkov, an assistant to Governor Mikhailov, insisted that construction of the Catholic church had been halted because there had been an "oversight", the plans not in fact being entirely in order as had previously been thought. Asked why he thought there had been no complaint about the new church prior to the archbishop's, Khritonenkov cited the proposed height of the building. "No one paid any attention, but then they saw that it was growing," he remarked. "People began to become concerned that their historical city centre was being ruined."

Since Archbishop Yevsevi's letter, the allegedly inappropriate dimensions of the new Catholic church have become the focus of the argument against it. In a text detailing purported examples of proselytism by the Catholic Church in Russia sent by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad to Catholic leader Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz on 25 June, its height was put at 42 metres (140 feet), or that of a 13-storey building, while "there are only 100 Catholics in Pskov region". A petition still being gathered in some Pskov Orthodox churches, seen by Keston, states: "We are not against the construction of another Catholic church, but are opposed to its disproportionately grandiose dimensions (area 1,500 square metres), when Catholics number 50-100 persons."

These figures are disputed by both the Catholics and the local authorities. Fr Karolewski claimed to Keston that the proposed original height was 33 metres. While some 2 per cent of Pskov city residents - or around 4,000 people - are Catholic, he said, regular parishioners number approximately 350. Khritonenkov told Keston that heights of between 32 and 40 metres have been proposed for the church at various stages, and maintained that there were around 800 Catholics in Pskov city. Both Fr Karolewski and Khritonenkov stated that "all sides" have now agreed to a height of 28 metres.

Even at 28 metres, Pskov's new Catholic church is still very large indeed. A builder - one of approximately a dozen Keston saw working on the church site on 19 September - estimated that the part built so far, which reaches almost to the roof, measures some 10 metres. While this part alone appeared to Keston to be higher than many of the historical Orthodox churches in Pskov city, the new church in fact lies some ten minutes' walk outside the ancient city walls and is not passed by any major thoroughfares. The part of the building to be taken up by the church is also only about half. It will have seats for up to 500 worshippers, Fr Karolewski told Keston, while the numerous large rooms in the remaining section will accommodate himself and fellow parish priest Vladimir Timoshenko, as well as meeting areas, a school-room, a catering-sized kitchen and Caritas offices.

The secretary of Pskov Orthodox diocese Fr Ioann Mukhanov, who was able to speak to Keston on 20 September only by telephone, remarked that construction of the new Catholic church "appears to be continuing". Its height, however, would now be "much lower - a bit more than 20 metres," he thought. Asked by Keston whether this was now acceptable to the Orthodox, Fr Mukhanov replied that it may not be, "but we have already done everything that we could according to the law". (END)