Decree and Reality: Ukrainian Catholics Say Presidential Order on Property Return

26.07.2004, 15:55
A year ago, the president of Ukraine signed an executive order On Urgent Measures to Finally Overcome the Negative Consequences of the Totalitarian Policy of the Former USSR, Concerning Religion, and to Restore the Transgressed Rights of Churches and Religious Communities (hereafter referred to as the order).

A year ago, the president of Ukraine signed an executive order On Urgent Measures to Finally Overcome the Negative Consequences of the Totalitarian Policy of the Former USSR, Concerning Religion, and to Restore the Transgressed Rights of Churches and Religious Communities (hereafter referred to as the order).

By Klara GUDZYK,
The Day Kyiv, Ukraine, April 15, 2003

Needless to say, it was a very important document for the country's religious life, considering that a number of problems, including those relating to property, which are of the utmost importance for Ukrainian churches, have remained unresolved for the past decade. Bishop Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk, General Vicar of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kyiv and Zhytomyr, said, "Confiscating church property is one thing, but returning it is a totally different matter." While confiscation was accomplished quickly and routinely, the return of such property is being done slowly, reluctantly, with delays, or not at all.

The churches met the order with gratification; it provides for returning not only religious structures - temples and chapels - but also real estate seized by the Soviet authorities (church administrative buildings, various theological institutions, cloistered premises, etc.). In this sense the order confirms to Ukrainian and world democratic principles.

In April, marking the anniversary of the order to make restitution of Church property, a press conference was organized by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kyiv and Zhytomyr, summing up progress in implementing the order and assessing its effectiveness. Among those present were Bishop Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk; Oleksandr Dobroyer, press secretary of the Odesa-Simferopol Diocese; Stanislav Hryhoruk, chairman of St. Michael's parochial council; and other representatives of the Catholic community.

The facts and figures cited at the press conference and illustrating the order's effectiveness during the year presented a sad picture indeed. "This country is obviously divided into those issuing orders or laws at the highest level and those pretending that no such laws exist. I am referring to local authorities; the overall impression is that these authorities have either forgotten all about the order, which is so important to the churches, or are consciously ignoring it," said Bishop Stanislav Shyrokoradiuk.

Also, a closer look at the order shows that, for all its good intentions, the document relates only to property possessed by the central government. As for religious buildings and premises currently under municipal ownership, local self-government authorities are merely "recommended to take measures to restore the violated rights of churches and religious organizations." In other words they may or may not return others' property being used for purposes other than those designated.

The press conference pointed to yet another factor without which the well-intended order becomes practically impossible to implement: financing the restitution of church property (including expenses of the transfer of secular institutions to different premises, their equipment, etc.). This year's state budget has only one expenditure item providing for such "church" expenses, financing the State Committee for Religious Affairs. Clause 1 of the order, dated April 3, 2002, reads, "Appropriations shall be envisioned, when drafting the State Budget of Ukraine for 2003 and subsequent years, to provide for the implementation by executive authorities of action plans in conjunction with the measures set forth in this order." This is typical.

The order contains a "recommendation" concerning municipal property (one is left wondering about the word recommendation: an order is supposed to contain directives and instructions {actually, even orders from the Stalin period "recommended" and left it up to the officials concerned to decide whether they would rather do it or be shot - Ed.} and lacks specific mechanisms to secure the restoration of the violated rights of religious organizations. Oleksiy Braslavets (RCC Media Center in Ukraine) says that this calls into question the document's effectiveness. Given today's lack of legal culture, this might also cause confrontations, as evidenced by recent events involving the cloistered communities of St. Jonas and the Presentation at the Temple.

The said "recommendation" allows local bureaucrats to abuse their office, showing a discriminatory approach when returning municipal property to religious communities. The more so that no one is held responsible for the failure to carry out orders, specifically the one on the restitution of religious property. Obviously, this is a problem faced by the Church as well as the authorities; the latter is in the habit of having both its orders and citizens' rights ignored.

Bishop Stanislav reminded those present that a large number of religious structures remain state property and are leased by churches. For example, the Church of St. Alexander in Kyiv was practically raised from ruin by the Roman Catholic community at its own expense. At present, this temple regularly hosts concerts for Kyivans. An excellent organ was installed recently, so its beautiful sounds are now enjoyed by the faithful and secular music lovers alike. The same could be the case with St. Michael's Cathedral (currently the House of Organ and Chamber Music). "Catholics do not ruin but build things," he stressed.

The Vicar of the Kyiv-Zhytomyr Diocese pointed out that little has been done by way of restitution during the past eight years: "We now have mostly what was returned to us under Mikhail Gorbachev and Leonid Kravchuk." He added that Leonid Kuchma's order, a timely and necessary top level decision, has not as yet had any significant effect on the restitution process.

If and when such property is returned, it is most often in ruins or merely the site where a church once stood. The impression is that only the latter-date churches are satisfied in Ukraine; nothing has been taken away from them and now they are receiving more property, particularly sites for new church buildings. "We have for a number of years been trying to get a site for a small church in Obolon - and this considering that 5% of Kyivans are Catholics."

When asked by journalists whether the Kyiv-Zhytomyr Diocese had any problems with other churches claiming their property, Bishop Stanislav replied in the negative. "Our Diocese has only one contender to deal with, the state," he said.

When asked about the role of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, Bishop Stanislav said, "The committee protects church interests, but it has no levers to influence local authorities. I visited Zhytomyr once together with committee officials and the mayor refused to see us... The situation could improve after enacting a new law on the freedom of conscience and religious organizations. The bill is being revised and actively discussed."

St. Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv is graphic evidence of the glaring absence of cooperation between central and local authorities. Local bureaucrats still regard it as the House of Organ and Chamber Music. The cathedral was built by architect Horodetsky in 1909 with the Catholic community's money.

In the 1930s it was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and traditionally converted into a warehouse. Later, the place became known as the House of Organ Music. Organ music was something no one could dispute, but the Catholic Church undertakes to preserve the performers' rights and does not object to concerts at the cathedral; on the contrary, it offers to maintain the organ.

Two factors exacerbate the situation. First, the structure is in a lamentable condition, owing to the Metro line underneath it. It requires immediate complex and expensive repair, something few are concerned about nowadays. Second, a private firm is planning an 8-story office building practically right next to the cathedral, within its conservation zone (with permission from the Kyiv authorities). And the cathedral is not transferred to the Catholic community as the lawful owner who would guarantee immediate repair and proper maintenance, even though this structure is not on the list of premises that cannot be made church property. Bishop Stanislav feels sure that St. Michael's Cathedral will become church property only when its condition becomes critical, an imminent threat to the neighborhood.

In fact, Bishop Stanislav has met with President Leonid Kuchma twice to discuss the cathedral's transfer and the head of state agreed that it should be immediately handed over to the Catholic community, yet the situation remains the same. The mayor of Kyiv has nothing against this transfer, either. And this is what makes the whole story so intriguing.

St. Michael's Cathedral is a graphic example of executive discipline and the kind of respect the authorities have for religious people. This structure was built in the neo-Gothic religious style; it cannot be mistaken for a concert hall (be it organ, chamber, or other), planetarium, let alone office building; even to the untutored, Ukrainians or foreigners, it is clearly a Catholic church. Unless made property and part of the Catholic community, it will remain Midas's ears turned into those of an ass, showing the kind of order we display here for the whole world to see.