Friday 20 November


by Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service

An archbishop of the Moscow Patriarchate successfully lobbied his provincial governor to reverse a decision to return a church building to local Roman Catholics, the archbishop's secretary told Keston News Service. The church, built by and for the Catholics of Orel 300 miles south of Moscow in the 19th century, was confiscated from them during the Soviet period.

FR IOANN TROITSKY, secretary to ARCHBISHOP PAISI of the Russian Orthodox diocese of Orel, told Keston that the archbishop contacted the Orel oblast's governor YEGOR STROYEV as soon as he learned that the oblast administration had issued a decree returning the church building to the revived local Catholic parish. (The parish is led by FR JOSEF GUNCAGA, who also looks after other Catholic parishes in Orel, Kursk, Bryansk, Belgorod, Voronezh and Ryazan.) Stroyev then annulled the decree.

Fr Guncaga, however, believes that Archbishop Paisi is well disposed towards Roman Catholics and that his parish's main enemy is Stroyev. Asked what might lie behind the oblast authorities' behaviour, he said that they might have feared that the Jewish community in Orel intended to use the decree as a precedent for regaining the local synagogue.

The Catholic priest told Keston that in June 1998 he was invited to a meeting by the Orel oblast's top official for church-state relations, IVAN POLUKHIN. Polukhin informed him of the oblast administration's decree No. 205, returning the Catholic church in the city of Orel to the Catholic parish. The decree, signed by the oblast's first deputy governor VITALI KOCHUYEV, was already legally in force. Father Guncaga said that the provincial newspaper `Orlovskaya pravda' had also written about this forthcoming event. The priest immediately visited the oblast administration's department on property in order to complete the process of transferring the building back to its original owner. But there he was told that a certificate from the oblast's department on architecture was required, as well as the agreement of the director of the 'Prodmash' factory whose offices are now located in the Catholic church.

Fr Guncaga told Keston that he received the permission of the architecture department. He then visited the factory director, who he said promised to look into the matter. According to Fr Guncaga the director took from him the copy of the decree which the priest had received from Polukhin; this was the priest's only copy, since he was in such haste to complete the transfer that he had failed to duplicate it. Since that time, Fr Josef told Keston, he had not seen this document again. Since then both Kochuyev and the director of the factory had avoided meeting him, the priest said.

After Stroyev annulled the decree, the Catholic parish asked for permission to rent a room for services in the factory premises, but this was also refused. In a telephone interview with Keston the factory's director ALEKSANDR DUDIN confirmed that he was against returning the building to the Catholics; he said that such a transfer would lower the value of his company's shares. He also confirmed that in his view it would be 'inexpedient' even to allow the Catholics to rent part of the building. As for Fr Josef's allegations about the factory management refusing to return the parish's copy of the provincial government's decree, he said that he knew nothing about this since the priest's meeting had been with Dudin's predecessor as factory director, who had since retired.

Thus Fr Guncaga's parish must now continue meeting in a private flat in central Orel. Some 30 people gather for services on Sundays, but many people in the city simply do not know that there is a Catholic priest in the town. Fr Guncaga said that the Catholics were denied access to the press in Orel because local journalists feared reprisals from the authorities. Fr Guncaga has had to resort to placing small advertisements in the newspapers on the lines of: `Roman Catholic priest requires transport'.

The head of the parish council, GALINA MALYUCHENKO, told Keston that ARCHBISHOP TADEUSZ KONDRUSIEWICZ, head of the Roman Catholics' apostolic administration for Moscow and north European Russia, had sent his own appeal to governor Stroyev. But she predicted that Stroyev would continue to refuse since he did not want to defy the wishes of the Orthodox Archbishop Paisi. (END)

Friday, 20 November


by Tatyana Titova and Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service

A Moscow court's surprise decision to postpone until 9 February further consideration of a landmark lawsuit against the Jehovah's Witnesses was clearly designed to help the Witnesses' accusers by giving them more time to prepare their case, a well-placed source told Keston News Service. The source, who is not a member of the Witnesses but has given them specialised advice in the lawsuit, said that the case against the Witnesses argued by the Moscow procuracy in court sessions on 17 and 18 November had been 'morally and legally weak'.

Keston's source said that Judge YELENA PROKHORICHEVA had clearly tilted against the Witnesses in her handling of questions and motions from lawyers on both sides of the case. For example, she allowed the Witnesses' accusers to refuse to answer the defence lawyers' questions about the provision of the European convention on human rights which guarantees religious minorities the right to hold organised gatherings for worship and preaching. She also allowed representatives of the anti-cult Committee for the Salvation of Youth to be formal parties in the case, but not rank-and-file members of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The procuracy argues that the Jehovah's Witnesses should be judged to have illegally 'incited religious conflict' because their publications state that their religion is true and other religions are false. Keston's source noted that potentially this criterion could be used to suppress any religious confession which claims to teach divinely revealed truths, including the Orthodox Church.

Also striking was the procuracy's answer to a question from one of the lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses: Does the procuracy merely want to annul the status of the defendant as a legal personality, or also to ban its religious activity such as prayer meetings and the distribution of tracts? All activity, was the answer.

Defence lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses stressed that the procuracy was basing its case entirely on the Witnesses' published literature rather than filing formal charges of a concrete violation of the rights of any concrete individual. For example, the procuracy charges that the Witnesses' opposition to blood transfusions is dangerous to people's health, but has not brought suit on behalf of any specific person whose health has suffered as a result of the Witnesses' activities.

A Keston representative who observed the court proceedings noticed that both the judge and the attorney for the Moscow procuracy seemed to be poorly informed about the details of the case. It was clear from the judge's questions that she had never before heard of the Jehovah's Witnesses. At one point, the procuracy's lawyer admitted that she herself had not read the literature of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Openly prompting her in court were lawyers for the Committee for the Salvation of Youth.

ALEKSEI NAZARYCHEV, an official at the Jehovah's Witnesses´┐Ż Russian headquarters in St Petersburg, told Keston that the postponement of the trial was not necessarily good news for the defendants. The Witnesses now know the defence lawyers' basic lines of argument and will be able to prepare a new case taking advantage of that knowledge. (END)