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Russia seizes and plunders central Cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in occupied Crimea
The Russians occupation regime has flouted a UN order and begun forcibly seizing and looting the Cathedral of Saints Volodymyr and Olha in Simferopol, the centre of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine [OCU] in occupied Crimea. Andriy Shchekun, Chief Editor of the newspaper Krymska Svitlytsia, early on 11 May 2023 that the Russians were breaking down the doors to the Cathedral, carrying out an inventory and plundering what they found. On Thursday evening, he provided , stating that members of the congregation were being prevented from entering the Cathedral and were simply waiting on the street. The building was surrounded by Russian police, as well as representatives of Russian propaganda media. Without any explanation and without producing any permits, the occupation regime is sealing the Cathedral and changing the locks on all doors.
Russia’s pillaging is being carried out by representatives of the Russian occupation ‘state property fund’ and Russian bailiffs, with a Moscow bailiff, Yevgeny Nikolaevich Novikov in charge.
The so-called ‘Crimean ministry of property and land relations’ that this was “the liberation” of the Cathedral and that it was taking place on legal grounds. Such an assertion is deeply cynical, but hardly surprising given that Russia has also called its carnage, bombing and destruction of 90% of the infrastructure of Mariupol the city’s “liberation”.
The occupation ‘ministry’ has claimed that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine had, purportedly, not ‘re-registered’ the building in accordance with Russian legislation within the time limit given. Even if one ignores the extraordinary demand that property should be re-registered “according to the legislation” of the aggressor state which invaded and illegally seized control of Crimea, there are other glaring inaccuracies.
Russia began its attack on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Crimea from immediately after its invasion and very clearly planned to seize control of the Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olha from the outset. Archbishop Klyment,, Head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Crimea, stated soon after the invasion that he had been offered 200 thousand US dollars to vacate the Cathedral in Simferopol. It was after this attempt at corruption failed, that the occupation regime turned to other methods to achieve what it is now trying to call the ‘liberation’ of the Cathedral, namely the seizure and looting of the property of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and the crushing of its central body in occupied Crimea.
In January 2016, the Russian occupation ‘Crimean arbitration court’ issued a ruling ordering the Church to vacate 112 m² of the premises (the ground floor) and to pay a prohibitive half a million roubles, which were claimed to be for communal services.
In July 2018, a law on land registration was changed in order to cancel any acts which had not been re-registered under Russian law. It had long been clear that the demand for re-registration would be used to either force religious communities to accept Russian citizenship and jurisdiction, or to drive them out of Crimea.
For a very long time, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church rejected any suggestion of such re-registration which effectively entailed recognition of Russian rule. In fact, however, faced with the real prospect that his congregation – and all Ukrainian believers in Crimea – could be deprived of any church, Archbishop Klyment did, finally, file for such re-registration, however only of the congregation, not of the Diocese itself. The occupation authorities found pretexts for three rejections of this application, and Klyment stated earlier that he was convinced that they were deliberately dragging the process out.
The attempts to totally evict the Diocese and the congregation date back to 2019. Serhiy Zayets, the lawyer representing the Ukrainian Orthodox congregation, back in August 2019 that the original eviction notice was in the summer of 2019, although Klyment reported on 8 February 2019 that he had received a writ ordering that he vacate the Cathedral within 30 days. Klyment warned that this was likely to lead to eight parishes in rural areas also being forced to close.
On 28 June 2019, the occupation ‘Crimean arbitration court’ ordered the dissolution of the lease agreement for the Cathedral signed in 2002 between the Ukrainian authorities (the Crimean Property Fund) and the Crimean Diocese of what was then the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate.
The real attempts to evict the Church, Zayets says, began at the end of August 2019, although they swiftly hit what should have been a formidable obstacle. In September 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee intervened, applying Rule 94 to halt the eviction of the congregation. On 4 August 2020, Russia’s Supreme Court refused to reconsider the decision to evict the congregation from the Cathedral.
Zayets stated then that it was time to sound the alarm. The Supreme Court’s decision, he believed, “essentially means the total dissolution of the Ukrainian Orthodox community in Crimea. This is not formally genocide, but it borders on it. Russia is destroying yet another Ukrainian religious and cultural group and is continuing to purge Crimea of all that is Ukrainian”.
The ban on any seizure of the Cathedral imposed by the UN Human Rights Committee remains in force. On 17 February 2022, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada also took an important (and extremely belated) step by formally transferring the Cathedral to state ownership for the duration of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. While Russia is flouting the decision both of Ukraine’s legislators, and of a United Nations body, both send an important message to the international community. So too does the SOS sent by Andriy Shchekun, on behalf of all Ukrainian Orthodox believers in occupied Crimea, in the face of this shocking attack on their congregation and on the central body of their Church.