Orthodox Church of Ukraine effectively driven out of Russian-occupied Crimea
By Halya Coynash
All clergy serving the Crimean Diocese of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine [OCU] have been forced to leave occupied Crimea or risk being forcibly mobilized into Russia’s armed forces. This is the last blow and has caused Archbishop Klyment, Metropolitan of Simferopol and Crimea to report bitterly that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has effectively ceased to exist in Crimea. This is what Russia has been seeking to achieve since its invasion and annexation of the peninsula in 2014, but Klyment has long expressed frustration that Kyiv was so slow to take any action in defence of the Church, and recent actions are of positive concern.
In an interview to Voice of Crimea, Klyment was asked to explain what had been happening in Crimea since Russia flouted an express order from the UN’s Human Rights Council and seized the Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olha in Simferopol on 11 May 2023.
At the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Klyment said, there had still been seven functioning parishes in occupied Crimea. He explains that the Church had been unable to make any public statements due to concern for the safety of the clergy still present in occupied Crimea. Unfortunately, that constraint has now been lifted with the forced departure of the last priest from the Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olha. The Metropolitan says that he is unable, at present, to divulge all the details, but there had been a real danger that Russia would attempt to mobilize the Ukrainian clergy to fight its war of aggression against their country, and that the priests had been forced to keep changing their address and effectively spend the year in hiding to avoid being handed summonses to the military recruitment office. There may well be other reasons which the Metropolitan cannot disclose, however Russia has in the last six months adopted new legislation which makes it harder to avoid receiving such call-up notices.
Has Kyiv done enough?
On the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s legislators adopted an important resolution aimed at protecting the Church in Crimea. The Resolution from 17 February 2022 was a welcome move, but one that should have been taken immediately after Russia’s invasion in February 2014, as Klyment had advocated. It was, moreover, only a resolution, and needed action by the Government to implement the transfer of the Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olha in Simferopol, which was also the centre of the Crimean Diocese, into state property. Such a transfer was vital, if belated, since the fact that the land that the Cathedral stands on was officially the property of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, was used by the aggressor state to claim that it was now ‘federal Russian property’ which the Crimean Diocese was illegally occupying. This was absurd, but Klyment could not argue this alone since the land was under effectively permanent lease for a nominal fee, not the Church’s private property. That also made it more difficult to protect legally at international level, and Klyment made repeated approaches, only to be told by Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture that the Ukrainian government could not do anything since Crimea was not under their control and by another minister, that Ukraine didn’t have any mechanisms.
This appeared to have changed on 17 February 2022. Klyment explains that there are two resolutions, with the Cabinet of Ministers issuing a Resolution on 28 October 2022 appointing the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy as responsible for ensuring state registration of the Cathedral.
Klyment stresses that, despite Russia’s full-scale invasion, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk did take implementation of the initial resolution under her control, and the second was adopted. Such actions, he says, define the algorithm for Kyiv’s actions with respect to the property on which the Cathedral stands while Crimea remains under Russian occupation as well as after Crimea is liberated.
The problems are, however, twofold. Firstly, Kyiv effectively did nothing over the first nine years when Russia was brazenly acting to drive the Ukrainian Church out of Crimea and to seize the Cathedral and other Church premises. There had been 60 legal suits in Russian and occupation ‘courts’, and nine applications had been taken to the European Court of Human Rights, yet all without the support of the authorities in Kyiv.
The second problem is immediate, as the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy [MCIP] failed to implement the points of the above-mentioned Cabinet of Ministers Resolution by 31 December 2022. It has also, reportedly, created a ‘commission’ which does not include representatives of the Crimean Diocese and other authorized persons who should be involved. The Crimean Diocese was not even directly informed of this, although it was clear from both resolutions that the land was not to be handed to a state enterprise under MCIP management, but to the Crimean Diocese while Crimea remains under Russian occupation.
There are, clearly, some serious questions regarding the actions of MCIP and the acting Minister of Culture Rostyslav Karandeyev, and the Diocese is currently assessing the situation before deciding whether to initiate court proceedings and lodge a report with Ukraine’s Crimean Prosecutor.
On 2 October 2023, MCIP received a letter from the State Registrar suspending examination of the application for state registration on the grounds that MCIP had not presented evidence that the land was registered in the Single State Electronic System regarding construction. Klyment explains that this absurd delay is purely because MCIP did not communicate with the Church which has the originals of the documents. The originals include the technical passport for the premises, issued back on 12 October 2001. It is this document that has been the problem since it states the owner to be the Crimean Parliament which leased the Cathedral to the Crimean Diocese (of what was then the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate) until 2050. It was this that Russia used to claim ‘federal ownership’ of the land and to cancel the lease, as part of its attack on the Church. Despite the clearly critical situation, the Crimean Diocese kept being told that the land could not be transferred to it (or away from the Crimean Parliament) because Ukraine’s Constitution clearly states that property in Crimea is governed by the Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. All of this sounds good, but totally ignores Russia’s plunder and its flagrant and systematic violation of the rights of Ukrainian believers in occupied Crimea.
Russia began its attack on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Crimea from immediately after its invasion, with this undoubtedly linked both with the Church’s unequivocally pro-Ukrainian stand and with Russia’s antagonism and attempt to eliminate everything linked with Ukraine and Ukrainian identity under its occupation. Moscow very clearly planned to seize control of the Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olha from the outset, and Klyment has spoken of being 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.
Attempts to totally evict the Diocese and the congregation began in 2019. 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.
There should have been an insurmountable obstacle to Russia’s plunder in September 2019 when 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. Serhiy Zayets, the lawyer representing the Ukrainian Orthodox congregation, 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”.
Although the ban on any seizure of the Cathedral imposed by the UN Human Rights Committee remains in force, the Russians burst into the Cathedral on 11 May 2023 and began the plunder that they cynically called ‘liberation’ of the Church’s premises.