Issue 5, Article 17, 16 May 2000

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

Tuesday 16 May 2000

by Anna Vasilyeva, Keston News Service

In March the Karaite community of the Crimean capital Simferopol
recommenced services in their historical religious and cultural centre, Tchufut
Kale (`impregnable fortress' in Turkish). The site, located on the edge of
Bakhchisarai some 30 kilometres south west of Simferopol, contains two
Karaite kenassas (prayer houses), but is currently a conservation area under the
control of the Ministry of Culture of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. But
Crimea's Karaites have on occasion had to pay to pray at their own shrine -
when they have been allowed in. Sometimes they have to pray outside in front
of the entrance waiting for permission to enter from the conservation area

Elsewhere in the Crimea the Karaites, who number only about 800 in the whole
of the peninsula, have had almost no success in regaining their prayer houses or
other property seized from them during the Soviet era.

`In order to hold services on Tchufut Kale we have to buy tickets as tourists
just to enter the temple,' complained ALEKSANDR BABADJAN, the
chairman of the Simferopol Karaite religious community, in an interview with
Keston on 12 April. `The keys of the temple are kept by the administration of
the conservation area. We recommenced our services about a month ago, but
there has already been one occasion when the temple was not unlocked for us
and we had to pray in front of the entrance.'

The hill at Tchufut Kale where the kenassas are located resembles the Temple
Mount in Jerusalem, which is probably why it was also called `Josaphat's
valley'. The cemetery in Josaphat's valley which the Karaites call Balta Teims
(`may an axe not touch') used to contain an oak grove, but is now neglected.

Babadjan is not happy about the way the site is preserved, with only one of the
two kenassas usable for worship. `The kenassas on Tchufut Kale are not
maintained properly. In winter snow flies in through the windows.' More
distressing was the presence until recently of pigs on the site. `Can you
imagine?! The guard on Tchufut Kale used to keep pigs, which obviously
insulted our religious feelings. For God's sake, there is a cemetery there!
According to archaeological research there is a grave which dates back as far as
the 6th year AD. Recently we received an "apologetic" letter from the Ministry
of Culture which said: "The only pig has been removed".'

Babadjan explained the Karaites' faith: `We are considered to be Jewish and it
is a mistake. Some people believe us to be semi-Christians or semi-Muslims.
We recognise the Pentateuch but not the Talmud. Though historically we used
Hebrew, the original language of the Pentateuch, now we speak Turkish and
prayers - though written in Hebrew - are said in Turkish. Before the 7th century
AD we were in unity with the Jews. Now we honour Christ and Mohammed as
prophets and respect the Koran and the New Testament accordingly. The role
of a priest is as a helper, not an intermediary in personal communication with
God.' Currently services are held in Turkish and Russian. Reading of the
Pentateuch is an integral part of every service.

The Karaites have long been found in the Crimea and in the thirteenth century
Kagan Bulan, the head of the Crimean khanate, converted to the faith. The
Karaite state followed the theocratic principle. The secular ruler was at the
same time the spiritual leader. Babadjan reports that the current spiritual leader
is MIKHAIL FERKOVICH, who lives in one of the Baltic states. `There used
to be a Karaite theological school in the Crimea, Karaites worked as state
official and were honoured and respected.' Karaite communities still exist in
the Baltic states (notably at Trakai in Lithuania) and Poland.

In the Crimea, kenassas have been preserved not only at Tchufut Kale but in
Simferopol, Sevastopol and Bakhchisarai, as well as in Kiev and Kharkiv.
There are also non-worship buildings which used to belong to the Karaite

Babadjan reported some of the difficulties in preserving the Karaites' religious
and cultural heritage. `Funds were once allocated for this purpose, but now
there are none. We are trying to work on our own when we have free time. In
Yevpatoriya, the community restored the building on its own, but it does not
belong to it and they could be asked to vacate the premises at any time. We do
not own a single temple. The few service books we use were published in the
Baltic states, where there is a small community.'

There has been little success regaining Karaite buildings seized during the
communist period. Babadjan complains that the Simferopol kenassa, built in
1896 at the expense of the community, has been `expropriated' by the Radio
Committee that currently occupies the building. In the Soviet era a red star was
added to the facade, which still remains. Asked whether the Karaite community
has applied to the government to regain the kenassa, Babadjan replied: `I have
a full folder of correspondence on the matter. The community was registered in
1991 and since then we have been claiming our temple back.' What is the
result? `Zero. We have prepared all the documents and sent them to
VLADIMIR MALIBORSKY, the Chairman of the Committee for religious
affairs in the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea,
but we have received nothing but excuses from him. We are told that as soon as
there are funds to transfer the Radio Committee to another location, this issue
can be discussed. This building is an architectural monument and its acting
owner does not maintain it properly.'

`Although the community in Simferopol has been functioning since 1991,'
added Babadjan, `we do not have a place of worship there. The association of
Karaites of the Crimea and Ukraine occupies two rooms in a school on
Chekhov street in Simferopol that used to belong to the community. These
rooms are also occupied by the religious community and the group which is
dealing with the restoration of the kenassas on Tchufut Kale.'

Nor has there been any tangible success regaining the kenassa in Bakhchisarai.
`Although I have heard that there is a decision of Bakhchisarai authorities, the
building has not been returned. We could have made a room for worship there,
but we are being ignored. We have been told that the kenassa in Bakhchisarai
could be returned, but they say that the community is very small there and
would not be able to cope with its restoration.'

Asked to comment on the return of the Karaite kenassa in Tchufut Kale,
Maliborsky told Keston in a telephone interview on 14 April: `There is no
question about returning it to the community. The problem is going to be
resolved with the use of the kenassa being shared between the community and
the museum. As for its complete return, the documents have not been
submitted according to the required order. So far we have been receiving only
letters of complaints from the community.' To the question about the kenassa in
Simferopol, Maliborsky replied that the building is now the property of the
Ministry of Information of Ukraine, not even of the Crimea, and the Radio
Committee can only leave the premises if another building is given to its
disposal. 'The issue is very complex.' (END)

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