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In occupied Crimea, Ukraine’s church is facing extinction

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is now the only public institution linking Crimea to Ukraine. But under pressure from the authorities, it’s losing parishes, priests and its property.

Alona Savchuk
11 November 2019
"The Ukrainian Church in Crimea is the only place where you can come and feel free for a time"
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Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved

“The Ukrainian Schismatic Church”, “The Phantom of the Kyiv Patriarchate”, “The so-called ‘New Church’ of Ukraine” – in the wake of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church declaring autonomy in 2019, this is how Crimea’s leading media outlets describe the Church’s branch on the peninsula.

The head of the church, Archbishop Kliment of Simferopol and Crimea, has been called “the leader of the Ukrainian Schismatics in Crimea” and “the self-styled Archbishop”. Some media outlets particularly hostile to the church accuse it of Nazism and incitement to violence. Crimean government websites, meanwhile, print “pure facts”, claiming that followers of the Church “gave their blessings for the murders” in central Kyiv during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution.

More than five years since the annexation of Crimea, the peninsula’s Ukrainian Orthodox diocese is now the only public institution which links Crimean residents to mainland Ukraine. But systemic pressure on clergy and parishioners from the local authorities has brought it to the brink of extinction.

An unwelcome church

The new independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the successor to Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, in distinction to the other branch, the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Crimean diocese of the Kyiv Patriarchate found its first home in 1995 in the former Officers’ Club in Simferopol, where it opened a charity canteen, a chapel and a church dedicated to Saints Vladimir and Olga. It has been led by Archbishop Kliment since 2000.

2014 was an especially bad year for the Kyiv Patriarchate: its number of parishes dropped to nine, with only nine priests for the entire peninsula

Membership of the “Ukrainian church” in Crimea has grown over the years, but it has always been a religious minority. At the beginning of 2014, the Kyiv Patriarchate in Crimea consisted of 46 congregations, two brotherhoods and missions, one monastery and 25 priests. The Moscow Patriarchate, meanwhile, counted 535 religious organisations before Crimea’s annexation. A clear example of the disparity between the two dioceses was their representation in Sevastopol, the peninsula’s largest city: the Moscow patriarchate had 47 church buildings, as opposed to the Kyiv’s one.

Theologian Alexander Sagan says that Crimean officials have frequently used their powers to impede the growth of the Kyiv Patriarchate diocese: “Parliamentarians would associate themselves with the Moscow Patriarchate and block the very discussion of the possibility of land being allocated for Kyiv Patriarchate churches – this has in fact been one of the main factors limiting the development of the Kyiv Patriarchate in Crimea.”

The situation was exacerbated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Kyiv Patriarchate UOC was one of the first institutions to denounce Russian aggression, condemning the events as an “armed separatist revolt” and “subsequent occupation of Crimea by Russian troops”. It also called on Ukrainian military personnel and the population of Ukraine to “stand firm in defence of Ukraine’s independence’.

Cathedral Church of Prince Vladimir and Olga, Simferopol | Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved

To avoid any negative consequences for Kyiv Patriarchate buildings and clergy, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin - the former military commander who played a key role in Crimea and Donbas in 2014 - gave Archbishop Kliment a document guaranteeing the safety of church property. It warned that any attempts to illegally seize any property belonging to the church and its clergy would be dealt with, and gave Archbishop Kliment the right to direct contact with Crimea’s self-proclaimed head Sergey Aksenov. The document expired at the end of spring 2014.

“On 9 March 2014, [unknown armed persons in camouflage] detained [Crimean Euromaidan activists] Andrey Shchekun and Anton Kovalsky. We didn’t know where and in what state they were,” Archbishop Kliment told me. “On 19 March, I spoke out on live on Echo Moscow radio about what was happening in Crimea, and the next day I had a phone call from Strelkov. I agreed to see him at the Council of Ministers building, where he said, referring to Shchekun and Kovalsky: ‘Don’t worry, they’ll live’”.

Strelkov offered the Archbishop a safe pass, but with two conditions: not to say anything to anyone about what was happening in Crimea and to state publicly that life on the peninsula was returning to normal.

According to Archbishop Kliment, the document helped to safeguard the Church during the first months after annexation. Before Easter, the priests hung copies of Strelkov’s statement on the doors and windows of their churches, to avoid their seizure and looting.

Pressure, intimidation, arson

2014 was an especially bad year for the Kyiv Patriarchate: its number of parishes dropped to nine, with only nine priests for the entire peninsula.

The main reason for the fall in the number of parishes was the Church’s position on the demand to re-register in compliance with Russian law. The Crimean Kyiv Patriarchate was the only religious body that refused to do so. In the view of the Crimean authorities, the Church practically no longer exists: it cannot pay for its leases and utilities, open a bank account or enter into a contract.

Also, under Russian legislation, to hold a service or other religious rite, a priest has to either be a Russian citizen or have a right to permanent legal residence in Russia. Priests who don’t have Russian citizenship found themselves in a vulnerable position and completely dependent on the Crimean authorities.

Refusal to re-register, the seizure of church buildings and intimidation by Russian law enforcement have led to a gradual, systematic expulsion of the church from the peninsula. In March 2019, threatened by the physical disappearance of his diocese, Archbishop Kliment took the decision to officially register his church as a religious organisation without any links to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“They couldn’t say, ‘close the church’ in so many words, but they did all they could to make us hand over our premises”

“In 2014-2015, Ruslan Balbek [then deputy chairman of the Crimean Council of Ministers] was actively negotiating with me,” the Archbishop tells me. “It was very important to them for the Kyiv Patriarchate to re-register as an organisation. But our position was clear: we wouldn’t do it – otherwise it would appear to be an indirect recognition of Crimea’s annexation. But for us, nothing has changed: Crimea is Ukraine. We will not re-register the Crimean diocese, but are attempting to register as an independent religious organisation, in accordance with Russian law.”

Incidentally, the Crimean Ministry of Justice is determined not to register the new Ukrainian Orthodox Congregation – it has been turned down three times since its creation, each time in connection with new legal regulations.

“They told me in so many words,” the Archbishop says. “It’ll take forever to resolve this issue politically. It’s clear to everyone that the registration process is being delayed deliberately.”

Last resort

Given the fate of the Kyiv Patriarchate’s churchs in Crimea, the Archbishop’s position is perfectly understandable.

St Nicholas’ Church in the resort town of Saki has been evicted by the sanatorium where it was located: the new owner ended his contract with the community in December 2014. In Yevpatoria, another local resort, officials are still trying to demolish the wooden chapel of the Exaltation of the Honourable and Life-Giving Cross, as the local community is apparently expressing “negative opinions” about it. Practically all Ukrainian businesspeople in whose buildings the diocese conducted religious services have left Crimea due to threats and pressure, including demands that they refrain from supporting churchgoers from the Kyiv Patriarchate.

Notes by parishioners, Simferopol Cathedral Church | Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved

“They couldn’t say, ‘close the church’ in so many words, but they did all they could to make us hand over our premises,” the Archbishop recalls. “Both the police and local government were creating a situation where doing any business was difficult. They were people with pro-Ukrainian views, so they were immediately obvious to the police.”

On top of all this, in July 2014 unknown persons burned down Archbishop Kliment’s holiday home and robbed the Church of the Lord’s Transfiguration near Simferopol. In 2015, Simferopol Mayor Gennady Bakharev suggested to the Archbishop that he “voluntarily give up” a plot of land, which the local government had allocated to build a church, in favour of the FSB.

FSB officers have also attempted to recruit members of the Church’s clergy. The story of Father Maksim Vologdin is telling. In early 2014, he was being “worked on” by Anatoly Rudnev, a former Ukrainian security service officer. Eventually, Vologdin decided to leave Crimea and revealed what the FSB wanted from him: information about the diocese, its clergy and documentation on congregations and land, as well as nd Archbishop Kliment’s contacts with Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists. Rudnev also wanted to know whether the Archbishop “was openly preaching” against the annexation and Russia; whether he would sign a confession that Kliment had cooperated with Dmytro Yarosh, head of the far-right Right Sector organisation (banned in Russia), and the Archbishop’s “underground-subversive activity in Crimea with Crimean Tatars and their leaders”.

“I was given to understand that a refusal to cooperate would be seen as non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation, an assault on Russia’s territorial integrity, extremism and religious terrorism,” Vologdin wrote.

Pressure and violence

The fate of the Kyiv Patriarchate’s churches in Sevastopol and the nearby military base of Perevalne are telling: they were simply seized by Russian troops in the first months of 2014.

For instance, In Sevastopol, the Church of the Apostles Peter and Paul and St Nicholas of Myra, the Miracle Worker was located in the grounds of a Ukrainian naval training centre. After annexation, commanders of the Russian Black Sea Fleet announced that they were closing the building down and asked the diocese to remove its property from the church.

Archbishop Kliment | Image: Alina Smutko. All rights reserved

“They allowed us to continue with services until Easter, but then everything had to be removed or it would all just be thrown onto the street,” says the Archbishop.

Then in June they introduced a pass system, cutting off access to the church. The senior priest, Archimandrite Makarii, started holding services in his flat, but after an unofficial chat with the FSB he gave this up. .

In Perevalne, on the eve of Palm Sunday in 2014, unknown people in camouflage turned up at the Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God. They blocked off the church, demanding that the Kyiv Patriarchate cease holding religious services in the village, but the conflict was resolved with the aid of Council of Ministers’ officials. Later, Aleksandr Selevko, the head of the Religious Affairs department of Crimea’s Ministry of Culture, claimed that the unknown people were “local residents, angry at the priest’s anti-Russian slogans”.

Eventually, the parish priest Ivan Katko was forced to leave Crimea with his family after a series of threats. A particularly shocking incident involved Cossacks breaking into the church and smashing icons. The church was taken over by the Moscow Patriarchate, and the police refused to open a criminal case over the seizure and ransacking of the building.

The final Rubicon

“There’s no more talk of cooperation. Now their aim is to end our presence in Crimea,” Archbishop Kliment tells me. “There’s now direct confrontation, a life and death struggle.”

The diocese has currently six parishes, nine churches and four plots of land, bought before annexation. The Church is in a state of “fragile stability” – its fate will be sealed in Kaluga, Russia on 14 November, when an Arbitration Court will examine the diocese’s appeal against its eviction from the former Simferopol Officers’ Club, together with its church and diocesan administrative centre.

Attempts to take the building away from the Kyiv Patriarchate have been quietly continuing during the six years since annexation. In 2014 there was a protest outside the church with placards reading, “The Kyiv Patriarchate = Nazism” and “We oppose a Schism”. Court cases over various parts of the building have been dragging on between the diocese and the Ministry of Property and Land Relations of the Republic of Crimea since 2015.

Фото: Александра Ефименко. Публикуется с разрешения автора.
Cathedral Church, Simferopol | Image: Alexandra Efimenko. All rights reserved

In summer 2017, Crimean law enforcement closed access to the church and the State Executive Service ransacked rooms on the ground floor, accessed the altar area and removed some of the church furnishings and vessels. When the archbishop tried to get in, police officers damaged his arm. There was no recourse against them: every higher court confirmed their legality, although the August events did bring the community together. They realised that the church could disappear at any moment.

“We have no other place, and we may lose this, the only place we have left. It’s like losing your soul. Having taken everything – language, feast days, correct information – they have now had the cheek to take this as well. We are sitting in a tightly closed sack with neither light nor air, and they have thrown us a loudspeaker that spouts lies 24 hours a day,” says church member Maria.

In March 2019, Crimea’s Ministry of Property demanded, through the courts, the early cancelation of the rental agreement with the diocese on the Simferopol building, on the grounds of a debt of 2.95 hryvnya (£0.09) and a fine of 5.24 hryvnya (£0.16). The ministry also despatched builders to the church for “routine repairs to the facade”, where they spent three weeks breaking down doors and windows and removing the roof. Rain then caused the ceiling to sag, cracks appeared and part of it broke off, and the damp led to mould.

The diocese has now launched an appeal to the European Convention on Human Rights (the fifth so far). At the same time, 62 Ukrainian Orthodoc Church members appealed to the UN Human Rights Committee to interfere in the situation, since the Crimean authorities’ actions were effectively destroying their community. The UN’s response was to insist that Russia not evict the church community while the issue remained was still in the courts.

“After the Crimean courts’ decision to evict the church community, it could be implemented at any moment [including before the appeal hearing],” says Sergey Zayets, an expert at the Regional Human Rights Centre, and representative of the diocese in the court. “But the appeal court unexpectedly halted the implementation until the complaint was heard (the likelihood of this being close to zero). This could well be the result of the church members’ application to the UN Committee and the diocese’s submission to the ECHR. The ministry’s now changed its rhetoric: they are no longer evicting, but ‘carrying out repairs’.”

The church members expect a decision from the court on 14 November - a final answer on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s presence in Crimea. As Irina, a resident of Simferopol tells me, the church’s departure from the peninsula will be a great loss for many people.

“The Ukrainian church in Crimea is the most important element of Ukrainian culture here,” she says. “It’s now effectively the only place you can feel at home, among friends: where you can trust one another and converse in your own language. It’s a small island in an ocean of madness, somewhere where you can feel and show your humanity.”

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