Interview with Henadiy Kostenko
"We can only build our independent country together"
An interview with Henadiy Kostenko, head of the Department of Religious Matters of the Donetsk Region State Administration
– What does the religious map of the Donetsk region look like?
– It's extremely varied, because it has so happened historically that over 120 nationalities and ethnic groups live in our Donetsk area. This has, of course, made its mark on the religious landscape, inasmuch as each ethnic group brings something of its own to religious activities. Right now, we have 1145 religious organizations of 45 different confessions active with the right of legal entities. Orthodoxy has the greatest influence, inasmuch as historically Donbas was and remains Orthodox. [Editor's note: Donbas is a well-known part of the Donetsk region.] Orthodox of two jurisdictions make up the greater part of religious communities: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate [UOC-MP] and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, the latter being significantly less, with about 60 communities. Relations between these two churches remain tense.
The government administration, headed by Governor Viktor Yanukovych, has made maximum efforts so that we will have religious peace and concord. Meetings are held with leaders of religious organizations and there are common ceremonial gatherings on holy days.
We have Muslim communities. It so happened historically that when Donbas was settled, Tatars came here from Povolzhia. They worked here in the mines and in factories even up to World War Two. The second wave of Muslims arrived after the war. Our relations with representatives of the Muslim faith are quite good. I'll mention that, during the dedication of their first mosque, the spiritual center of the Muslims, even Orthodox priests took part in the ceremonies. Previously, when the Muslims didn't have their own place for worship, they came to Orthodox churches. Conditions were created for them so that they could conduct their services there. We have good relations with the head of the Spiritual Center of Muslims in Ukraine, Rashyd Brahin.
There are also Jewish communities present in Donbas.
Among Protestant movements, the Evangelical Baptists are the largest. There are also other Evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of the Full Gospel.
In our area, everything is done so that all religious organizations have equal rights and the possibility for development. Sixty percent of the population of the Donetsk region belongs to one or another religious group. Holy days demonstrate that people do go to worship. Perhaps they don't go every week, but on major holy days the churches are filled. Spirituality is experiencing a rebirth. In 1992, there were over 200 religious communities active in the Donetsk region; now, as I mentioned before, there are over 1000. This growth is happening not only in numbers but also in level of quality.
– Recently, a presidential decree and also a government directive regarding the return of worship buildings to various religious communities were issued. How big a problem is this in Donbas, in the Donetsk region in general, and are there any disputes occurring around any worship buildings? How does the situation look in general?
– There are no disputes. We have already solved this problem. We don't at present have the bitter conflicts that they have in some areas of Ukraine. But there are some sore points, where there are worship buildings which previously belonged to some church but haven't been returned.
First of all, the men's monastery of the Holy Dormition (Holy Hill) in the city of Slovianohorsk, Donetsk region, which this year will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its revival. The first mention of this monastery dates back to the year 1460. It so happened that in 1922 the monastery was seized and given to some professional unions. The professional unions' spa "Holy Hill" still remains, and the owner is the council of professional unions of Donetsk. The problem here remains open. The mayor thinks that Holy Hill monastery should become a lavra (major monastic center). The regional administration is now doing everything possible so that everything that was taken illegally will be returned to the possession of the monastery. Historical justice should come out on top.
– Are there any problems with those worship buildings which were previously active but have now become, shall we say, buildings for cultural activity? Perhaps these buildings are in too decrepit a condition and the communities are not ready to accept them back. Is there a problem like that?
– Yes, there is. There are cultural centers that no one has any claims on. We have a problem with cultural buildings in the city of Sloviansk. There's a Jewish synagogue there. The building now is owned by a utilities company. The premises will be returned to the Jewish community after they're repaired. The question of a mosque in Makiivka is still not settled; there's a day care center there. In the whole range of documents, there's nothing to confirm that this was, in fact, once a mosque. And you aren't going to throw the children out of there. In the Luzhky station in the city of Donetsk, there was a club for railroad workers on the premises of a former church. This issue was resolved. Now there's a church functioning there. Then there was the question of returning the building of the community's leader; there's now a medical center located there. Only a few legal formalities remain before that will be returned to the church.
– Certainly, in addition to property disputes, other interreligious conflicts must exist. From time to time in various areas of Ukraine conflicts arise. What's the situation in the Donetsk region? Is there much threat of conflicts?
– The threat always exists, wherever: whether in Donetsk or Lviv or Kyiv region. We can't say that there's no threat. But I will say again that everything is done so that such conflicts will not happen. There are some disputes, but we do everything to avoid such conflicts. What's the reason? There's one reason: every religious group considers itself the only correct one. There are struggles over the flock, over the number of faithful.
– What's the status of religious groups that already have worship buildings and how many new ones are now being built? Do they turn first of all to the government for help or do they build with their own funds? How do religious groups and churches solve the problems of worship spaces?
– Seventy percent of our churches and religious organizations have their own place to worship. And religious buildings are being constructed at an intense rate. I can't recite the exact figure now, but in the Donetsk region there are around 65 new worship buildings and 50 in the construction stage. They are built at the cost of the faithful and donors. We, I have in mind the government, have not given a single kopeck for the construction of worship buildings, because that is forbidden by law. The law of Ukraine "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" clearly regulates that the government does not finance the activities of religious organizations of whatever faith. So we in Donetsk region have not used one kopeck of government funds for the construction of worship buildings.
– And the cathedral church which is being built in the center of Donetsk is also at the expense of the church?
– Also at the expense of the church, and donors. All throughout history, philanthropists have donated for the building of churches. We have such philanthropists. I would give out their names, everyone knows about them and the church knows that they do very good things. Donetsk region is the only regional center of Ukraine that doesn't have its own cathedral church. We had a cathedral church, but sometime in 1936 or 1937 it was destroyed and a movie theater was built in that place, which was the usual thing in those times. But now we need to pay homage to history, to the people. The time has come to gather stones. We scattered them, but now it's time to gather them, because people need spirituality. Without spirituality, a person is empty.
– What role do religious groups play in the social and cultural life of Donetsk?
– Practically all our religious groups play a very important role in these matters, being involved in service work and charitable activities. You yourself see that now there are many poor people among us. They open soup kitchens for them, they give humanitarian aid. This aid is also spread among children in institutions, schools, and hospitals. In this sphere religious communities conduct a very important kind of work. At a session of the commission on humanitarian issues of the regional administration, it was announced that 80% of all humanitarian aid in the Donetsk region is given through religious organizations.
I will also add that the head rabbi of Donbas, Pinkhas Vyshetskyi, was recently awarded presidential recognition for charitable activities and humanitarian aid. This demonstrates that the government and president understand that religion plays an important role. The head of the Spiritual Center of Muslims of Ukraine, Rashyd Brahin, also was presented with a government award. Metropolitan Ilarion (UOC-MP) received a similar award. All these awards are for charitable activities conducted by religious communities.
– Now there's the issue of conducting religious education in schools, that is, a course of religious instruction, Christian ethics. Donbas is truly a multi-religious area. How can this question be decided in a multi-religious way?
– This is a very complicated issue, inasmuch as in one class there are children studying who belong to various religions. I think that you can't force one religion or another on them. Of course, there should be a religious subject taught, but rather let's consider the history of religion. All the religions should explain themselves, but none of them will be stressed. We have Sunday schools for that.
– Do any meetings occur between the various religions regarding the presence of the churches in schools?
– Yes, twice a year, together with the Institute of Artificial Intelligence, international conferences are held, "The Role of Knowledge and Religion and Society in the Moral Formation of Personality." Scholars, religious studies experts, and representatives of various religions state their positions on relations between church and state.
– A new bishop was recently inaugurated, and for some time now the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has had a new exarchate for Donetsk and Kharkiv. It's also known that the Roman Catholic Church has created new exarchates. How will this affect religious life and the interreligious situation in the Donetsk region?
– Of course, this will have an affect, because we didn't have an exarchate before. This is a matter for the church, it decides for itself where to make an exarchate. There's only one thing that interests me, that we have no conflict situations, because the position of the Orthodox side is well know regarding the newly created Catholic exarchate. I think that we will make the maximum effort so that they can exist together and, for the good of our Ukraine, do good works, because this is all for the good of our people, our country. We can only build our independent country together.
Interview conducted in Donetsk, February 2002
by Taras ANTOSHEVSKY