Issue 7, Article 5, 10 July 2000

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

Monday 10 July 2000

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

For more than nine years the Apostolic Administration of Roman Catholics in
European Russia and the parish of Ss Peter and Paul have been appealing to the
government and to the Moscow authorities for the return of the Ss Peter and
Paul Church in the city centre, together with four buildings adjoining it that
were also confiscated from the Catholics during the Soviet era. The Catholics
assert that the Giprouglemash company that now claims ownership of the
church received it illegally six years ago and are hoping that their fresh legal
challenge will finally result in the return of their church. `We have already
completed all necessary documentation and will be contesting the privatisation
of the church,' parish priest BOGDAN SEWERYNIK told Keston News
Service. However, the director of the Giprouglemash institute rejected
accusations that the company affiliated with his institute took over the building

The parish bought the land in 1838 and built the church and its adjoining four
buildings (the residence of the bishop, his staff and the parish clergy, together
with an almshouse, a school and a women's college, a library and charity
offices) with funds it had raised itself. In 1939 the church was closed and
turned into a cinema. In 1945 the church was handed over to the people's
commissariat for the coal industry and turned into an institute run by
Giprouglemash. At the beginning of perestroika the Giprouglemash state coal
enterprise was turned into a company, which privatised the church and included
it among its capital assets. The other church buildings, which became the
property of the municipal authorities, are used by various city-run institutions,
although large parts of these buildings are currently rented out to private

Following the opening up to religion in the late 1980s, various declarations
were issued on the return of places of worship to religious organisations. On 30
July 1992 the Moscow city soviet decided to return the church and its buildings
to the city's Catholics, a process which was to be carried out during the next
two years. The city authorities also declared their intention to provide
alternative accommodation for the organisations occupying the church
buildings. However, on 28 October 1994 the State property committee
transferred ownership of the church to the Giprouglemash company, despite the
fact that the church is a building of national cultural and historical significance
and should not have been privatised.

Father Sewerynik, who is Vicar General of the Apostolic Administration as
well as parish priest, told Keston on 29 June that in 1997 the parish brought an
action to the Court of Appeal in Moscow for the return of the church and the
adjoining buildings. When their case was rejected the parish submitted an
appeal against this decision to the Higher Court of Appeal three times. `The
documents pertaining to the case testify only to the historic ownership of the
disputed property, which ended during the Soviet era,' the chairman of the
Higher Court of Appeal V.F. YAKOVLEV declared. `However this does not
establish that a particular religious organisation has the right of ownership,
since from 1939 the disputed property was the subject of state ownership.'
Father Sewerynik explains: `According to Russian law we are not owners with
a legal claim to the property, because after nationalisation in 1920-21 we lost
our legal right to the property. To this day Russia has not passed a law on

The Moscow-based lawyer VLADIMIR RYAKHOVSKY, who has recently
been appointed by the Apostolic Administration to conduct the case, is
convinced that the privatisation of the church building was illegal, since places
of worship cannot be privatised. Ryakhovsky told Keston on 6 July that he
intended to contest the privatisation, as only the state was able to return the
church to the Catholic community.

The director of the Giprouglemash Institute, VLADIMIR STARICHIYEV,
rejects the suggestion that the building was illegally privatised, insisting to
Keston on 6 July that it was privatised in accordance with the laws of the time.
According to Starichiyev, the procuracy looked at whether the privatisation had
been legal a year ago and established that everything had been done within the
framework of the law, since the privatisation of the building had taken place
before the Presidential Decree of 20 January 1997 banning the privatisation of
property of religious significance.

The return of the Church of Ss Peter and Paul was one of many issues
discussed when the mayor of Moscow, YURI LUZHKOV, met the Vatican
Secretary of State ANGELO CARDINAL SODANO last December. `It is time
this problem was resolved as we approach the jubilee year,' Luzhkov declared.
The mayor appealed to the Ministry for State Property for the transfer of
ownership of the church. The first deputy minister of State Property, YURI
MEDVEDEV, replied that `the question of the return of this building has been
considered a number of times by the Ministry for State Property in conjunction
with the Giprouglemash joint stock company but there were no grounds for
removing the building from the capital assets of the company.' Medvedev also
assured the mayor that `the ministry shares the concerns of the religious
community' and it is `ready to participate in discussions and consider any
proposals for the resolution of this matter'. Luzhkov has promised that he will
return the four buildings adjoining the church to the Catholics as soon as the
federal authorities return the church.

When the former parish priest Father ANTONI HEY asked the institute if he
could be allocated even a small room in which to hold services, he was refused.
The directors of the Giprouglemash company pointed to the example of the
Church of the Immaculate Conception in Moscow which the Catholics were
eventually able to regain. `We know you,' they reportedly told the Catholics,
`you will bide your time peacefully for a year or two and then you will take the
whole of this building by force.' When the priests asked permission to look
round the building, they were refused entry on the pretext that the building was
of `strategic importance'. (END)

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