Religious Freedom Issues
ALTAI OFFICIALS PREFER EYEDROPS AND CATTLE TO CATHOLICS
Forum18 News, 8/3/2005
Russia - The 100-strong Catholic parish of Christ the King in the southern Siberian city of Barnaul has been petitioning the authorities in Altai Region for the return of its pre-1917 church for 13 years without success.
Showing Forum 18 the building in central Lenin
Street on 23 June, Polish parish priest Fr Roman Caly said that his
community will continue to insist upon its return: "We can prove it
was ours historically, and there is no serious reason to withhold it from
us."

Built between 1908 and 1913, the church was closed in 1932 and has served
as Barnaul's Chemist [Drug Store] No. 4 since 1937. In a thick file of
correspondence on the issue with the local authorities, Fr Roman showed
Forum 18 a typical response from the municipal administration to the
parish's requests. Dated 7 June 2000, the building cannot be returned to
the church, it maintains, because the chemist's serves 13 nearby medical
points, four regional medical institutions and over 30,000 local
residents, as well as being the only stockist of particular eyedrops.

Although the head of Altai Regional Administration, Aleksandr Surikov,
issued a decree in July 1993 promising the return of historical houses of
worship and related property to religious organisations between 1995 and
2000, another letter from the authorities in the file notes that a January
2000 instruction postponed this deadline to the first half of 2003. In that
year, Fr Roman told Forum 18, officials announced that the promised return
had again been postponed: "They keep giving us the right to claim the
building and then taking it away again. The current position is that there
is no possibility of positively resolving the issue of returning it to
us."

Fr Roman also told Forum 18 that other establishments began to be built
onto the former church soon after the parish first began to campaign for
its return in 1992, and that this has both complicated the claim and
disturbed the remains of the surrounding Catholic cemetery. In response to
his May 2000 query about a café built adjoining the building and on
top of the cemetery. However, the then mayor of Barnaul, Vladimir Bavarin,
wrote: "You are deeply mistaken regarding the interests of the city
administration regarding the return of the building to your community.
Sometimes one hears undeserved accusations and suppositions from
insufficiently informed persons, and this is very offensive and painful,
but when heard from you, a priest, a person whose calling is to serve by
high moral example, then it is doubly offensive."

Forum 18 saw that the rear of the former Catholic church has also been
extended to house the Siberian Institute for Human Reproduction and
Genetics, while, a few metres from the stump of the only remaining
cemetery cross, Fr Roman pointed out a tiny Orthodox chapel built
approximately a year ago. Although the parish could pursue its claim via
the courts, he said, "it could take another ten years," and the
law has so far proved to be "irrelevant".

In March 2003, the local Altai Daily Review reported Altai Region's
government chairman, Aleksandr Nazarchuk, as stating that his main
contribution to Orthodoxy had been in keeping Catholic representatives out
of Altai Region. The authorities in the neighbouring Altai Republic have
similarly barred a Catholic construction project, Fr Roman confirmed to
Forum 18, although he stressed that the initiative concerned is entirely
independent of his Novosibirsk-based diocese.

Thus, in her 1999 book "Church for All Nations", Austrian
Catholic Agnes Ritter writes that she has received visions of the Virgin
Mary since 1975 directing her to build a Catholic church and pilgrimage
centre on the banks of Lake Teletskoye in the Altai Republic. According to
Fr Roman, the Turachak district authorities at the northern end of this
lake, which has a small Catholic parish in Iogach village, initially
supported the project, but then blocked construction citing opposition
from local residents.

Writing in the local weekly newspaper Postskriptum, in April 2002, Galina
Maseyeva noted that between 2000 and 2002 Altai Republic's administration
allocated land and approved building plans for the Austrian project.
Although an opinion poll conducted among two-thirds of local residents
showed that 798 out of 838 supported construction, a late March 2002
statement by local ministers noted that "in connection with the
negative public reaction in Turachak district… the construction of the
Catholic church must be stopped… the need for a Catholic church in
Turachak district should be assessed. In examining this issue the strong
ideological influence of the West on the local population via the media
should be taken into account."

Cited at a subsequent meeting with local residents, Altai Republic's
religious affairs official Svetlana Pustogacheva warned that grazing
pasture for cattle would be removed, that there was no mechanism for
controlling the work of the Catholic Church and that "free cheese is
found only in a mousetrap." Maseyeva, however, indicates that most of
the local residents who addressed the meeting were unopposed to the
Catholic presence, referring to the desperately needed employment
opportunities and increase in foreign visitors that it would bring. In May
2002 the newspaper of Altai State University, For Science, announced that
head of Altai Republic Mikhail Lapshin had cancelled the project
nevertheless. At a recent Moscow press conference, it reported him as
saying that the issue would be considered only "when the pope and the
patriarch of Moscow and All Rus' make up," adding that he did not want
Catholics coming to his region and "abusing children, like in
America."

On 25 March 2005, Anton Barykin reported in the Novosibirsk-based
Chestnoye Slovo newspaper that the administration of Altai Republic had
again rejected the idea of building a "Church for All Nations"
on the shores of Teletskoye Lake. This time, the reason given was the
negative attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church and other social
organisations, who were "tired from the dominance of sects."

While the Moscow Patriarchate is opposed to a prominent Catholic
construction project in an area of Russia where the Catholic community is
small, it is currently seeking to do something similar itself in a
predominantly Catholic area. In the Irish , where the first Russian
Orthodoxy liturgy was celebrated in October 2002, in a Catholic church. On
29 June 2005, the Pravoslavie.ru Orthodox website outlined a Moscow meeting
between the Patriarchate's head of External Church Relations, Metropolitan
Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, and Irish ambassador to Russia Justin
Harman. At this meeting, Dublin-based Russian Orthodox priest Fr Georgi
Zavershinsky reportedly brought up the question of building a traditional
Russian wooden church in the western Irish city of Galway, which
"would adorn the tourist centre of the city and bear vivid witness to
Orthodox tradition and culture, both to immigrants from the CIS and to
Irish people living on the Atlantic coast."

The Limerick Leader newspaper reported, on 26 October 2002, that the plan
for an Orthodox church originated with Russian immigrants to Limerick,
quoting local Roman Catholic Bishop Donal Murray as giving his full
backing to the plan, saying that he "would love to do something for
them [the Russian Orthodox]." Russian Orthodox services are held in
Limerick's [Catholic] Augustinian Church, and Joe McGlynn, Augustinian
pastoral co-ordinator, told the Limerick Leader that "we are
delighted to host these services until they find their own church."
Other Orthodox parishes have also been established in Ireland, with the
help of both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church.
© Forum18 News