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01.07.2019 | Halya Coynash

Russia seizes main Cathedral and centre of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in occupied Crimea

Cathedral of Vladimir and Olga in Simferopol
   

The Russian occupation regime in Crimea has made its plundering of the main Cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Crimea ‘official’.  On 28 June 2019, the de facto ‘Crimean Arbitration Court’ ordered the dissolution of the lease agreement for the Cathedral of Vladimir and Olga in Simferopol signed in 2002 between the Ukrainian authorities (the Crimean Property Fund) and the Crimean Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate.  The ruling can, and of course, will be appealed against, though this is  probably in order for all avenues to have been followed when challenging Russia’s actions in the European Court of Human Rights [ECHR] and / or other international courts. 

The Church has been ordered to hand the building over to the so-called Crimean ministry of property and land relations, and also to pay almost five thousand UAH in court duty. 

Serhiy Zayets, who is representing the Crimean Eparchy’s interests in ECHR, says that this ruling effectively means the physical dissolution of the Crimean Eparchy’s Directorate, since this has now been stripped of its premises.  The formal pretext used was fictitious debt on the lease of 1 hryvnia.. The local occupation authorities did not even bother to wait for the court ruling and began ‘repairs’ in the building, with the dismantling of the roof resulting in a significant part of the Cathedral being flooded.

Archbishop Klyment reported on 8 February this year that he had received a writ ordering that he vacate the Cathedral within 30 days.  The Archbishop then warned that this was likely to lead to eight parishes in rural areas also being forced to close. 

On 27 March, the Church received another letter from this ‘ministry’, which terminated the lease agreement on the only Orthodox Church of Ukraine [OCU] church remaining in Simferopol.  The letter claimed that this was because the Church is in debt, however the sum, as Zayets mentioned, was nominal, and in fact the Archbishop denies that anything at all is owed.

The battle to seize control of the Cathedral of Vladimir and Olga began soon after Russia’s invasion and has continued, with Klyment even attacked during a raid on the Cathedral in which crosses and icons were seized (details here).. 

This is partly a move aimed at seizing a major site in Simferopol.  Klyment says that he was offered 200 thousand USD to give up the Cathedral shortly after Russia’s invasion.  Since he, of course, refused, the Russian occupation regime has turned to trumped-up pretexts for its plunder.

In January 2016, the same Russian-controlled ‘Crimean Arbitration Court’ issued a ruling ordering the Church to vacate 112 m²  of the premises and to pay a prohibitive half a million roubles,  which were claimed to be for communal services.  The appeal against that ruling was rejected in June 2016. 

The raid on August 31, 2017, cited another eviction order from December 2016 demanding that they leave the entire ground floor.

Russia’s appetite soon increased, and they now want the entire premises.

This move is also part of the aggressive offensive and repressive measures against the Ukrainian Church in Crimea since annexation and against Klyment himself.  He was detained on 3 March, when he was already seated on a coach to Rostov in Russia for the latest hearing in the ‘trial’ of Russia’s youngest Ukrainian political prisoner Pavlo Hryb.   Two pretexts were found, both insultingly implausible, for holding Klyment in detention until late evening.  It is possible that the occupation authorities were planning administrative arrest, but were deterred by the publicity the move received (details here).

All faiths, except the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, have come under fire in occupied Crimea, but the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate was the first to be attacked, probably because of its openly pro-Ukrainian position and its public statement on 11 March 2014 condemning Russian occupation of Crimea.    

In just the first year, 38 out of 46 parishes ceased to exist, and in at very least three cases, churches were seized by the occupation regime:  in Sevastopol; Simferopol and in the village of Perevalne.  Of 25 priests in 2014, by October 2018 there were only four.  There had been nine until the summer of 2018, however five had left for mainland Ukraine after a number of searches of the homes of members of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre and after it became clear that the lack of a Russian passport was likely to be used against them. 

Lack of such registration has given Russia weapons to use in depriving the Church and believers of their places of worship and of other rights. Other methods have also been used,  including the threat of physical reprisals by the armed paramilitaries, especially in 2014, vulnerability over the  lack of Russian citizenship and also economic intimidation.  There have been threats, for example, against those businesspeople who provided premises for the Church to use, with this a reason why many religious communities have lost their places of worship. 

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