Issue 3, Article 21, 20 March 2000

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

Friday 17 March 2000

by Anna Vasilyeva, Keston News Service

While waiting for the return of their church building in the Crimean capital
Simferopol, the sixty-strong German Evangelical Lutheran community in the
town has to hold services in one small room in a cultural centre built by the
local German community during the Soviet era next to their confiscated church.
It was here, for example, that on 3 March the Women's World Day of Prayer
was celebrated. Representatives of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Baptist
churches participated in an ecumenical prayer meeting for the women of
Indonesia. `That day we were praying for women in Asia,' the leader of the
German community ELZA HIRKO declared in an interview with Keston News
Service on 8 March in the church's room, `but we also prayed together for the
women of the Crimea. It is very important that different denominations were
praying together.'

The cultural centre - located on Karl Marx street in central Simferopol -
contains three small rooms. While one is used as the church, the other two
house a German club and an office. The entrance to the church is decorated by
an ornamental facade, and nearby there is a memorial to the victims of the
deportation. The Lutheran parish, which has use of the room but not ownership
of it, would ideally like to gain ownership of its premises in the cultural centre
and the original Lutheran church next door.

`Internal renovation works were funded by sponsors from Bavaria,' Hirko
reports of the current premises, `while the porch and facade were constructed
with help from the State Committee for Nationalities. In 1994 a special
delegation arrived from Germany and the church was consecrated and after that
we received our first pastor.'

The original church building next door has been preserved, though without the
bell tower. In 1997-98 it was leased to the Consol construction company for 10
years. At the moment the building remains empty. A school building was also
part of the original complex, but it is now occupied by the court and the
prosecutor's office. The owner of these buildings remains the state. Hirko
confirms that the community has applied for the return of the whole complex.
`Germany promised to help with the restoration works as soon as we have
regained ownership rights. The Lutheran Church of Bavaria is assisting us. We
are not claiming the school building back, recognising that it is not a place of
worship and we have no plans for it.'

Hirko outlines the church's history. `The church was founded by Germans
migrants in the nineteenth century. Originally the believers built a one-storied
building which was reconstructed 30 years later with the bell tower and opened
in 1841. At the same time a parish school and a small inn were founded nearby.
The church was closed in 1926. It reopened in 1994 and the community was
registered the same year. Then we applied for the return of the building to the
town authorities.'

The numbers of ethnic Germans in the Crimea - who are traditionally of
Lutheran background - has been steadily falling. There were 51,000 in 1939. In
1994 nearly 2,600 Germans were left, though over the next two years this
number fell by a further 400. There are several Lutheran communities in
Crimea - in Simferopol, Yalta, Feodosiya and Sudak - all of which belong to
the Lutheran Church of Ukraine (which is itself subordinate to the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in Russia, Ukraine, azakhstan and Central Asia with
headquarters in St Petersburg). At the moment they are only allowed to use the
Kirchen (Lutheran churches) which were built by their ancestors.

Services in the Simferopol parish are conducted by Hirko and Pastor
VLADIMIR LESNOY, who has to come to Simferopol from Feodosiya.
`Today, the community consists of 62 members,' Hirko reports. `Originally the
community mostly consisted of Germans, now we have members of other
nationalities as well. We prepare people for confirmation. People from
Sevastopol and Yevpatoriya come here to prepare.'

A meeting was held on 9 March in the Simferopol city council at which the
Lutherans tried to clarify the legal status of the premises which have already
been given back. `We were told that giving the cult buildings into the religious
community's use is a common practice,' Hirko told Keston later that day.
`However we disagree with this situation. We want to have the ownership
rights for the building and it is essential in terms of receiving funding from
Germany. The issue of ownership is hanging in the air and it has been like this
since 1992. We intend to meet the mayor of the city and have already arranged
a meeting with him.'

By contrast, the building of the former Tavricheskaya seminary and buildings
of the former sanatorium in Alupka on the Crimea's southern coast have been
handed back into ownership of the Orthodox Church.

VLADIMIR MALIBORSKY, the head of the State department for religious
affairs in the Crimea, explains that the Lutheran complex in Simferopol has not
been returned yet because the three German communities which exist in the
Crimea have not come to a consensus themselves. They all claim ownership of
the building, though only one application for its return - from Hirko's
community - has actually been submitted. `We cannot give priority to one
community,' he told Keston in a telephone interview from his office in
Simferopol on 14 March. `They are all in an equal position for us. At the
moment three organisations are claiming the building's ownership rights: the
German cultural society and two other German communities. We will support
the return of this property as soon as they come to an agreement themselves,
although the final decision is made by the city council.'

Pastor Lesnoy explains the difficulties the Crimean Lutherans have had
regaining their property. `De facto none of the buildings has been returned,' he
told Keston in a telephone interview. `All those which have been given back in
Simferopol and Yalta were given back for use only, not into complete
ownership. The situation in Yalta is complex, as eight people live in the church
building. In Sudak the situation is even more complex. The building is under
the Ministry of Culture and we are very pessimistic about its return. These facts
vividly illustrate the attitude to national minorities. It is a shame.' Pastor
Lesnoy explains that the Lutherans are asking for places of worship back only
in places where Germans actually live. `Some buildings which used to be
Lutheran have been given to other confessions. For example in Feodosiya our
building has now become a mosque. I talked to the mullah and we have no
controversy on the matter.'

Pastor Lesnoy believes there are two reasons for the delay in the return of
Lutheran property. `The Crimea still remains a stronghold of Communism in
Ukraine. I read their pre-election materials, they build their relationships only
with the Orthodox church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The second reason is
Russian nationalism. It has been nurtured here for 10 years and now the attitude
towards the national minorities here is even worse than in other regions of

In addition to the attempts to recover its church buildings in the Crimea, the
Lutherans face internal debate, especially over the ordination of women. `At
the moment women's ordination is being discussed,' Hirko told Keston. `In 70
per cent of the Lutheran Churches it has already become a practice. It has been
practised neither in the Crimea nor in Ukraine so far. Three women are now
students in the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in St Petersburg. Two years ago
we were the first women.'

Any decision made on women's priesthood will be entered in the statutes of the
community ,but the final word on the matter rests with the Synod. Hirko is a
member of the Synod and as well as a member of the Inter-confessional
Council `Peace is a gift of God'. `Historically, the work in the community is
mostly carried out by women. Currently we are preparing a new statute for
registration which significantly increases the rights of women to participate in
the service. But women still are not allowed to perform the sacraments of
Eucharist and Baptism,' commented Hirko. `Though I am sure this is a question
of time.'

Pastor Lesnoy is doubtful whether the Lutherans of Crimea will have women
pastors soon. `I believe it will not happen in our church in the next five years.
We represent a national minority and live in an Orthodox environment which
does not accept such a practice. However there is such a tendency and we hope
that it will happen some day. We do not have candidates at the moment who
should undergo a special training and it all will take some years. Our
communities are democratic and 2/3 of votes are required for making a
decision. The Synod must express its opinion, its meeting will take place in
September this year. Currently this issue is being discussed in the parishes.'

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