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In June 2018, the occupying “authorities” of Sevastopol handed over to the city community of the Roman Catholic Church a historic church building that housed a cinema in Soviet times and for the return of which parishioners fought for more than two decades after Ukraine gained independence. Whether this action was really a “gesture of goodwill” that was supposed to testify to the “happy life” of Catholics in “Russian” Crimea after “liberation from Ukraine”, and what are its consequences – read more in the material.
Back in 1837, the Russian Emperor Nicholas I approved the plan of Sevastopol, on which a place for the construction of a Catholic church was marked – the plans for the construction of which were hindered by the Crimean War for two decades. By the end of the 19th century, the number of Catholics in the city exceeded 4,000. Services were held in private homes. In 1902, one of the parishioners offered a plot of land purchased from the city, and within a year it was agreed to build a church on it. The works began in 1905 according to the project of the military engineer Tretesky. In 1911, a church in the name of St. Clement was solemnly consecrated in Sevastopol, built with donations from parishioners and people of good will.
After the Bolshevik October coup, the community, in which several dozen parishioners remained, gathered in the repeatedly looted and “nationalized” shrine until 1936, paying rent for its use – until the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Crimean ASSR issued a resolution on the “final liquidation and expropriation of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in the city of Sevastopol”. The abbot of the parish, Father Mathias (Matviy) Gudaitis, accused of espionage, was shot by NKVD officers. After that, the parish was dissolved “due to the lack of clergy and non-conduct of divine services.”
During World War II, the church building, in which the radio station was located, was hit by shells and gradually fell into complete disrepair. At the end of the 1950s, its survey revealed that 100% of the foundations and 80% of the walls were preserved. Therefore, it was decided to rebuild the former temple into a children’s cinema called “Friendship”: this initiative was implemented in 1958 according to the project of the architect Braude, with the destruction of all signs of the religious building. Only a tiny part of the decoration in the altar part survived, which was covered with a movie screen. A public toilet was installed in the lower chapel of the temple, where divine services used to be held.
After Ukraine gained independence, in 1992-1993, a Catholic parish was revived in Sevastopol, which, in addition to the townspeople, also included residents of the nearest settlements. Believers have repeatedly and unsuccessfully appealed to the city authorities to return their historic property to them.
The fight for the temple
In 1994, the Decree of the President of Ukraine “On the Return of Religious Property to Religious Organizations” was issued. The Decree, in accordance with Article 17 of the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”, assigned local bodies of the state executive power to ensure, by December 1, 1997, the transfer of religious buildings and property that are in posession of the state and are not being used for their intended purpose, into the hands of religious organizations, for free use or return into their property free of charge. However, the historical building of the Catholic church in Sevastopol, entered into the register of architectural monuments of local importance, was in the communal property of the city, so it was managed by the city council. Since 1996, the parishioners have been forced to gather in a rented apartment on the third floor of one of the buildings on Velyka Morska Street, which, in addition to the priest’s residence, was equipped with a chapel.
In 1995, after the restoration of Ukraine’s independence, Fr. Fr. Leonid Tkachuk became the first rector of the parish in Sevastopol. It was he who bought an apartment for holding religious services and until 2008 made efforts to return the historic temple building. Having lost the case in the Supreme Court of Ukraine, in November 2000, the Catholic community of Sevastopol filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights – which, apparently, is still considering the case. Meanwhile, the vestibule built in Soviet times on the site of the church bell tower, in which the cinema’s ticket offices were located, began to collapse. The building was declared an emergency and closed in 2010. At the same time, the community successfully pushed the city authorities to stop the operation of the public toilet in the former church.
In February 2010, the then head of the Sevastopol City State Administration Serhii Kunitsyn requested transfer of the temple building in which the cinema “Friendship” was located, from communal property to state property with the aim of its subsequent transfer to the Catholic parish. He received an official letter of refusal from the head of the Sevastopol City Council Valery Saratov (died on December 9, 2015 in Moscow). The letter stated that there were no legal grounds for the transfer of the building, and such a ground could not be the transformation of the object into a religious building. Calling this letter “illogical, unprofessional and contrary to state practice”, Kunitsyn said that it belonged in the “museum of nonsense”. Later, Saratov, like some officials before him, offered the religious community to buy the temple building, naming a certain amount and perceiving the building as an economic object, which was put up for sale three times.
In March 2011, the rector of the Catholic parish of Sevastopol, Fr. Yuriy Ziminskyi (prematurely departed to the Lord on August 18, 2021), recounting the history of the church, recalled aspects of its “repurposing” during Soviet times: “They dismantled the parapet along the entire perimeter of the roof and the roof itself, destroyed the columns, broke the vaults, put on a “muzzle” (referring to the vestibule – author), which later became a den of drug dealers and pimps… Today the temple stands empty. What’s more: when the screen was removed, it turned out that the altar part – the heart of the temple – remained intact behind it.” He also said that local officials and some townspeople were outraged by proposals to “give communal property to Catholics for free” and instead offered the parishioners to buy the church building — saying, the Vatican is rich. The priests of the Sevastopol deaconry of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) also opposed the transfer. stating that they were “protecting Orthodoxy from the expansion of Catholicism” and that they “did not understand the expediency of the appearance of a Catholic church on the square named after the admiral Fyodor Ushakov canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.” In particular, the head of the Sevastopol deaconry of the UOC, archpriest Serhii Khalyuta, stated that in the city “there are much more Orthodox than Catholics” and that they are building new churches instead of demanding the return of historical religious buildings – however, he did not specify how many churches the city councel has already handed over to the Orthodox community. Later, at the beginning of 2013, Khalyuta, who was and is the confessor of the Sevastopol authorities, advised the Catholic community of the city to “pray more and hope for God’s will, without stirring up moods in the city.”
In June 2011, the Roman Catholic community of Sevastopol hoped that the issue of the return of the temple would be considered during the plenary session of the city council, but it was not included in the approved agenda. Finally, in July, the parishioners, led by the abbot, started an open-ended campaign demanding the return of the historic church building: several days a week, several hours a day, a tent stood near the building. Icons and large photographs of the church dating 1912 and 1944 (after the liberation of the city) were displayed. In addition, leaflets with relevant information were prepared and distributed to passers-by. At the same time, a collection of signatures was organized in support of the return of the temple to the parishioners. In a month, 10,263 signatures were collected, of which about 2,000 were left by guests of Sevastopol. Then the activity was discontinued. The collected signatures were planned to be used during future public hearings and handed over to the country’s leadership.
On July 19, 2011, the Sevastopol City Council, which was dominated by representatives of the Party of Regions and other openly anti-Ukrainian forces such as the now banned “Russian Bloc” and the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), failed to vote for the return of the church building to the Roman Catholic community, the funds for the restoration of which were permanently absent: only three deputies voted “for”, 19 voted “against”, 40 abstained. Before that, the head of the city councel Yuriy Doinikov stated that the “raw” issue of returning the temple to Catholics should be studied at public hearings or submitted to a city-wide referendum (however, similar conditions were never put forward to the communities of the UOC when returning the buildings of the former Orthodox churches to them). The leader of the “Russian Bloc” faction in the city council Gennady Basov, who after the Russian occupation of Crimea on charges of bribery served several years in prison, offered to sell the premises of the then-defunct Friendship cinema at an auction “in the interests of Sevastopol retirees”, and advised the city Catholic community to contact the Polish consulate in the city, patrons and sponsors to help them find a plot of land and build a temple on it. It should be noted that the Polish Consulate did request that the building be returned to the faithful and its restoration carried out – however, the city authorities at the time demanded in exchange an investment of several million dollars. The issue was not resolved.
The mentioned statements and actions of Sevastopol politicians Fr. Yuriy Ziminsky described as unfair and discriminatory, recalling that the Orthodox Christians of the city received the use or ownership of almost all existing religious buildings in Sevastopol that were taken from religious communities during the Soviet era. He blamed local politicians for their prejudiced attitude towards religious minorities, in particular regarding the issue of the return of church buildings, and suggested that their position indicates a certain pressure from the clergy of the UOC, which did not want to have “competitors” in the city.
Finally, Fr. Yuriy in September 2011, after another consideration of the issue of returning the temple to Catholics at a session of the city council was not decided for the benefit of the community, published an open letter to Yuriy Doynikov, in which he stated the following: “I, a sinful servant of God, a priest of the Universal Church of Christ, during the Sunday Holy Liturgy before the faithful, raise my left hand and with the authority given to me by the Church, announce the following: “From this moment on, all opponents and haters in the matter of the return of the temple of St. Clement in the city of Sevastopol to believing Catholic Christians for the glorification of Almighty God, in the Trinity of the Holy One and for the salvation of many, choose between joy and sorrow, health and illness, salvation and damnation. May the power of the name of Christ the Lord, the power of His Redemptive Blood and the power of the Calvary Cross save and preserve all people of good will who are responsible for this issue.” No robes and mitres are able to resist this truth, because everything else is from the evil one.
A month later, in October 2011, in an interview with the local media, Fr. Yuriy Ziminskyi said that the demands of the city council deputies not to give believers the temple building, which had been converted into a cinema, contained false information about it and were accompanied by baseless accusations against the Russian Catholic Curch, which could be qualified as an official crime against freedom of conscience. Fr. Yuriy recalled the words of Artem Maltsev, a member of the city council faction “Communists of Sevastopol”, who stated that the Sevastopol church was destroyed by bombings during World War II, after which a cinema was built in its place, and also equated Catholicism with fascism and called the Pope “the inspirer of the struggle against the Soviet Union and Orthodoxy”. At the same time, the communist deputy called on all his colleagues, baptized in the Orthodox Church, to vote against the transfer of the temple building to Catholics – because Sevastopol, he said, “always was and remains Orthodox”, and “not to give gifts” to the city’s small Catholic community. These words of Maltsev prompted the parishioners of the Russian Catholic Curch to submit a statement to the city prosecutor’s office on the fact of inciting enmity; the deputy himself regarded this step as an “attempt to put pressure” on him by the Catholic community.
In 2013, the Municipal Administration assured that during the meeting of the organizing committee for the preparation for the celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Russia under the leadership of the then President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, a decision was made to transfer the temple building to the Roman Catholic community of Sevastopol – however, later it was clarified that the final decision would be made by the Interdenominational Council of Crimea “Peace is a gift of God”, which also includes representatives of the RCC. Meanwhile, the Sevastopol community “traditionally” celebrated Christmas in December 2013 at the walls of the historic church building.
“A gift from Russia”
After the Russian occupation of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol in February-March 2014, the “new-old” representatives of the already illegitimate government directly told Sevastopol Catholics that they should forget about the return of the temple building.
However, in 2015–2017, when the parish was forced to undergo “re-registration” under the legislation of the occupying state as a part of a special pastoral district for the faithful of the RCC in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, representatives of the parish filed with the “governor” of the occupied city two requests for the return of the temple building – already in accordance with the law of the Russian Federation dated November 30, 2010 No. 327-FZ on the transfer of state or municipal property, which has religious purpose, to religious organizations. The first letter was “lost”, the second, submitted at the beginning of February 2017, received no meaningful response. Russian priest Oleksandr Nemchynov, who arrived in Sevastopol in 2016 to serve as parish vicar, also dealt with this issue. In October of the same year, the historic temple building was included in the list of cultural heritage objects of the occupied city with the note “former church”. At the end of 2016, representatives of the parish submitted a new request for the return of the church with a complete set of documents and archival materials in accordance with the requirements of the legislation of the occupying state.
Believers continued to pray at the walls of the temple building with the permission of the local “authorities”. During the Easter service in 2017, the delegate of the pastoral district of the RCC in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Bishop Jacek Pyl, during the greeting, addressing the parishioners in Ukrainian and Polish, called for unity, peace, the eradication of war in hearts and families, the acquisition of true love in Christ, as well as not being afraid to testify to one’s faith and preserve the traditions of one’s ancestors. There were also hopes that the “administration” of occupied Sevastopol would find mercy towards the religious community and the courage to implement the law of the occupying state. In the meantime, plans were made public to reconstruct the temple building and return it to the purpose of a cinema.
In August 2017, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin made an official visit to the Russian Federation for the first time in many years. He met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (behind closed doors), the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, and the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. These meetings gave Russian propaganda a reason to claim that “spiritual diplomacy plays into the hands of the Kremlin.” On the eve of Cardinal Parolin’s arrival in Moscow, the Italian press claimed that he could act as a mediator who “brings together two worlds that should not be considered hostile to each other” and that for the Kremlin, improving relations with the Vatican is a chance to draw attention to Russia’s attempts to become “a stronghold of morals and traditional values, which contrasts with an increasingly secularized Europe”, and to demonstrate the absence of international isolation. During the conversation with Parolin, Putin assured him that he appreciates “the trusting and constructive dialogue that has developed between the Holy See and Russia” and welcomes the direct dialogue that has begun between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Church; in response, the cardinal noted that the Vatican is “satisfied with relations with Russia.” After some time it became known that during his meetings with the Russian authorities, Parolin raised the issue of returning to the Catholic Church churches on the territory of the Russian Federation: this list also included a church building in occupied Sevastopol. On December 13, 2017, a meeting of the “council on interfaith relations” was held under the “government” of Sevastopol, during which the then “governor” Dmytro Ovsyannikov assured that the issue of returning the temple to the community would be resolved in the near future.
In this regard, it is worth mentioning the illustrative case of the restitution of church property in the Russian Federation. In July 2016, the Moscow Archdiocese of the Mother of God RCC appealed to the Moscow Arbitration Court to oblige the Department of City Property to transfer to its ownership the historical ensemble of buildings of the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on Lubyanka in accordance with the already mentioned law, adopted in December 2010. On June 1, 2017, the court ruled in favor of the archdiocese, but the city authorities filed an appeal: four departments of the Moscow government opposed the church at once. At the end of 2021, the Russian press accused the archdiocese of self-interest in this matter, and its head, Metropolitan Paolo Pezzi, of intending to sell at a decent price, with the permission of the Vatican, the buildings obtained free of charge, without paying for the services of the company that helped the archdiocese to obtain historical buildings in the center of Moscow. In October of the same year, the vicar general of the archdiocese, Fr. Kyrylo Gorbunov, described the attitude of the Russian authorities towards the RCC as “generally benevolent”, but noted that cases of the return of large historical buildings to communities can be perceived as “undesirable” because they “contribute to the excessive strengthening of the RCC’s position in the Russian Federation”, so the authorities don’t always want to expose themselves to criticism from people for whom such a position may be incomprehensible. Similar conflict situations were observed in other cities of the Russian Federation – in Smolensk, Kirov, and Taganrog.
Given these facts, the decision of the Russian authorities after more than 20 years of wandering to finally hand over the historic church building to the Catholic community of occupied Sevastopol seems somewhat unexpected. The corresponding “order of the government of Sevastopol” was approved on May 31, 2018 and solemnly handed over to the delegate of the pastoral district in the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Bishop Jacek Pyl, by the “deputy governor” Yuri Kryvov on June 3. At the same time, the occupying city “government” and the parish of the RCC signed an “agreement on cooperation in the field of culture, preservation of history and traditional universal values”, which stated that the memory of “the blood of heroes and victims, abundantly shed on the long-suffering Sevastopol land”, which should be “a visual guide to raising the young generation as faithful children of the Church of Christ and true patriots”. Bishop Jacek Pyl noted that the church will fulfill the role of “one great monument to Catholics who died during the Crimean War and the Second World War.”
The optimism of the parishioners about the dream return of the temple was overshadowed by the news that it will take about 6 years to draw up the “documentation” for its restoration. About a month after the transfer of the building, they formalized the right of ownership, coordinating the “documents” with the “department of property and land relations of the government of Sevastopol.” In addition, there was the issue of registration of the land plot under the building into the ownership of the parish. The first service in the church (more precisely, in the vestibule added during the Soviet era) after its return took place on November 17, 2018: at the same time, a 6 m metal cross was installed and consecrated at the entrance to the building. Among the clergy who took part in the solemn service of God was Fr. Leonid Tkachuk, who was the rector of the parish in 1995-2008 and was appointed to the former place of service for the restoration of the temple building returned to the faithful. However, quarantine restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the priest’s health ruined these plans. In 2020, Fr. Leonid was forced to leave the occupied Crimea without the possibility of further return. On November 19, 2021, after a serious illness, he went to be with the Lord.
In January 2019, Sevastopol media reported that builders were destroying the church wall with jackhammers. The representatives of the parish assured that they carry out the work themselves and remove garbage from the building. In particular, Fr. Oleksandr Nemchynov explained that part of the window, blocked with stones in 1958, had to be dismantled “so that at least a little light would be in the building”, which still did not have electricity. The parish did not have a work permit from the occupying “authorities” – as well as certificates of ownership of the church.
In June 2021, representatives of the mass media and the public of Sevastopol sounded the alarm: the historic building of the Catholic church, handed over to local believers in mid-2018, was slowly collapsing. There was no indication that even cosmetic repairs could be carried out on the building, with battered walls and graffiti, while the city center was undergoing reconstruction of building facades. The occupying “authority” of the city did not provide a single penny for the restoration of the church. The community, which has 300-400 people, cannot raise the amount needed for reconstruction on its own; attraction of foreign investments is significantly complicated due to the sanctions and international isolation of the occupied Crimea – if at all possible.
The new rector of the community, Fr. Mateusz Lipnytsky, who arrived in Sevastopol from Poland, reported that services are still being held in the annex, while the main part of the church is awaiting reconstruction. “The process is not too fast, as the building must correspond to the historical appearance. It is necessary to collect all certificates, documents, photos. Inside, everything that was connected with the religious service was destroyed, even the supporting columns. There are plans to purchase a real organ, but not before the reconstruction of the temple is completed – that is, in five years,” he said. “A lot of money needs to be raised to compensate for the damage done to this holy place. We count on the help of the authorities and benefactors. Some people look at the Vatican as a huge money chest that you can dip into when needed, but that’s a stereotype. The order to hand over the cinema to Catholics alone will not solve the problem,” added the former vicar of the parish, Fr. Oleksandr Nemchynov.
In January 2022, the church building in Sevastopol still showed no signs of restoration, or at least hints of its beginning or preparation. All the necessary “documents” have been prepared in the parish, but the problem has been aggravated for two years by the issue of the plot of land on which the church is located and which is “privately owned”. On April 12, Iryna Maslikova, the head of the “Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage Objects of the Government of Sevastopol”, reporting to the “Deputies of the Legislative Assembly of Sevastopol”, complained that the Roman Catholic community is not engaged in the restoration of the church, which is an object of cultural heritage. At the same time, she added that in 2018, the parish received a “protection obligation” from her “department” with a “deed of technical condition” of the object and a plan for carrying out works on its preservation, which were to be completed by 2023. She further noted that she does not see “any active actions” on the part of the owner in this direction – neither obtaining a design assignment and permission to conduct research, nor measures to approve scientific and project documentation, etc.
On the eve of the Sevastopol “official’s” report, a message appeared that the Roman Catholic community of the city conducts all religious services, as it once did, in an apartment-chapel – apparently, not having the opportunity to fully use the historic church building, generously “gifted” by the occupiers several years ago. Unfortunately, this story does not cause optimism, and it is unlikely that we will have to be surprised when the occupying “authorities” of Sevastopol, due to “improper preservation of the architectural monument”, will return their “gift” to the “property of the city”, once again repurposing the temple building for their own purposes .
St. Clement Catholic Church | Parish of St. Clement (https://vk.com/sev_catholic)
Catholic Church in Crimea (http://crimeacatholic.org/)
Churches and chapels of Ukraine (http://rkc.in.ua/)