Issue 3, Article 5, 3 March 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

Thursday 3 March 2000

by Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service

In January 2000, the justice administration in the Belgorod region once again
refused registration to Belgorod's Catholic parish. Officials of this region in
southern Russia bordering Ukraine - with the backing of the Russian Orthodox
Church - openly express their hostility to the Catholics and other religious
minorities, with one even declaring that there is `no room' for them in the

The priest of the Belgorod Catholic parish, Father KRZYSZTOF KEMPA
(who also serves as parish priest of the nearby town of Kursk), told Keston
News Service on 29 February that the authorities do not want to register the
Belgorod parish or even accept the relevant documents from them because they
are well aware that the Catholic community will demand the return of their
church building that the authorities have transferred to the ownership of the
Moscow Patriarchate's Belgorod diocese.

The authorities have held out against registration of a Catholic parish in
Belgorod since 1997. The priest of the parish at the time, Father JOZEF
GUNCAGA, told Keston several times in 1998 and 1999 that even then the
local Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan IOANN (POPOV) of Belgorod and Stary
Oskol, had publicly demanded that the existence of a Catholic parish be
forbidden. On one occasion, in 1998, Father Guncaga was arrested at the
entrance to the town after an outdoor liturgy in Belgorod in front of the
Catholic church building and, in the course of his conversation with the militia,
was accused of organising unauthorised meetings. During a meeting about the
opening of the Belgorod Catholic parish between Metropolitan Ioann and
Father Guncaga, who was then still priest of the Kursk parish, Metropolitan
Ioann told Father Guncaga: `If you sow the wind in Belgorod, you'll reap a
whirlwind in Kursk.'

The current priest, Father Kempa, received a similar response to his approaches
to Metropolitan Ioann. Father Kempa appealed in person to the bishop not to
hinder the registration of the parish, but Metropolitan Ioann, according to
Father Kempa, declared categorically that there would be no Catholic parish in
Belgorod and `mocked' his persistence. Father Kempa reports that the hostile
attitude of the Orthodox is creating an unpleasant atmosphere for Catholics in
the town. Many are afraid to admit that they are Catholics and Father Kempa
himself is regarded with suspicion, since he is a `foreign Catholic'. Father
Kempa argues that this situation has emerged thanks to the very close co-
operation between the regional administration and the diocese, in contravention
of the Russian Constitution.

The press office of the Belgorod diocese told Keston bluntly that in 1998 the
regional authorities officially transferred the Catholic church building to the
Belgorod diocese. Press officer SVETLANA KOBELEVA said in an interview
with Keston on 28 February that the local history museum and the diocese have
proposed a joint project for the former church - the creation of a centre of local
religious history for children and a museum of St Ioasaf of Belgorod.

On 29 February, the head of the department of religious affairs in the
administration of Belgorod region, ALEKSEI LUSHCHENKO, fully
confirmed to Keston the diocesan press office's information. He said that the
Catholic church building was transferred simply for the needs of the diocese.
Asked whether the Catholics have any right to this building, Lushchenko told
Keston that the Catholics could now obtain the church building only by taking
legal action - if, of course, the community came through the official registration
process. Lushchenko explained that the parish had been refused registration
because of `several infringements of protocol' in the application. However, an
employee at the department for the registration of religious organisations in the
justice administration of Belgorod region, who wished to remain anonymous,
told Keston on 29 February that although officially the Catholic community
had been refused `because of inadequate information', it was in reality linked to
the Orthodox diocese's unwillingness to return the church to them.

In an interview with Keston on 20 February, one of the leading Orthodox
priests of the diocese, Father PAVEL VEINGOLD, tried to explain the refusal
to register the Catholics by claiming that they were `a harmful western
influence' and added that there were scarcely 10 Catholics in the town. An
official from Lushchenko's administration put the number of Catholics in
Belgorod at more than 30, which is sufficient for registration of a community.
However, an independent source - the religious correspondent of the newspaper
`Our Belgorod' BORIS YECHIN - assured Keston on 28 February that there
are several hundred in the town, who would potentially like to attend church
and who find it difficult to get to Mass if it is held in a flat or simply do not
know where to go.

Father Pavel claimed to Keston that the Catholic Church opposes the national
rebirth of Russia and that Pope JOHN PAUL II's November 1999 visit to
Georgia was linked with assistance to the Chechen rebels. According to Father
Pavel, the Vatican wanted to consolidate its hold in Belgorod as part of its
policy of proselytising, but the diocese and the authorities have not allowed it
to do this.

Lushchenko spells out even more clearly the religious policy of the Belgorod
regional authorities: `The Orthodox Church is our traditional church, and
therefore we will work together with it and we will co-operate in all things. We
must help the Russian Orthodox Church so that the West does not fill the
spiritual vacuum, since the idea of the separation of Church and state is in fact
a sham.' He told Keston that the governor of the region, YEVGENI
SAVCHENKO, consults Metropolitan Ioann on all major issues. He also said
that all law enforcement agencies have been ordered to keep an eye on
foreigners who undertake missionary work in the region.

An official at the regional administration briefly summed up the attitude of the
authorities to non-Orthodox believers, such as Catholics: `There are only a few
religious minorities, and they will become ever fewer- there is no room here for
non-traditional religions.' (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.