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CRIMEA: UN call to halt Cathedral eviction

Source:                www.forum18.org

Date:                     December 4, 2019

 


By Felix Corley, Forum 18

http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2525

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has called on the Russian
government not to evict the Orthodox Church of Ukraine congregation from
its rented accommodation in the Crimean capital Simferopol while it
considers an appeal by 62 parishioners. The premises have served since 1995
as the Crimean Diocese's Sts Volodymyr and Olga Cathedral. A court decision
to evict the community has now gone into force, though the Diocese is now
challenging it in Russia's Supreme Court in Moscow.

"The additional information received from the authors suggests that the
State party authorities are still proceeding to the eviction of the authors
despite the Committee's request," the UN Human Rights Committee wrote on 20
September in a letter seen by Forum 18.

The Human Rights Committee bluntly repeated its request to the Russian
authorities not to evict the community from its Simferopol cathedral while
it considered the appeal. "The Committee reminds the State party, that a
failure to implement the interim measures is incompatible with the
obligation to respect in good faith the procedure of individual
communications established under the Optional Protocol [to the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]" (see below).

The community's lawyer Sergei Zayets insisted to Forum 18 that Russia
should heed the UN request and not evict the community, despite an 18
November Russian arbitration court ruling against it.

Russia's March 2014 annexation of Crimea is not recognised by Ukraine or
internationally.

Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra Yefymenko said Sts Volodymyr and Olga
Cathedral is still functioning and services are continuing. "But
unfortunately this won't last long," she told Forum 18 from Crimea on 3
December. "The Crimean Diocese has lost in all the courts and they will be
evicted from the building. This is my prediction."

Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the new authorities sharply
increased the rent the community had to pay for the building in central
Simferopol. In court proceedings, the authorities claimed the community
owed tiny amounts of unpaid Ukrainian rent and also that – as an
unregistered religious organisation under Russian law – the Diocese was
not allowed to rent state-owned or municipally-owned property (see below).

The Russian authorities amended the law on renting state property in Crimea
in July 2018 to require that any rental contract for state-owned or
municipally-owned property with an organisation that had state registration
under Ukrainian law but which failed to gain registration under Russian law
after the 2014 annexation be cancelled through the courts (see below).

In his explanation presented to the Crimean State Council justifying the
amendment, the head of Crimea's Russian-backed government Sergei Aksyonov
noted several Ukrainian-owned companies in such a position, but made no
mention of the Orthodox congregation in Simferopol.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine also fears that the authorities in the
western Crimean city of Yevpatoriya will demolish a small wooden chapel it
built between two blocks of flats in 2013. The city court ruled on 6
November 2019 that the Church is using the site illegally and that the
chapel should be demolished. The Church complains it learnt about the court
hearing only on that day. Its lawyer said it will challenge the court
decision (see forthcoming F18News article).

Ukrainian journalist Yefymenko attended Sunday liturgy at the Yevpatoriya
church on 1 December. "Representatives of the Russian special services may
come to such liturgies under the guise of parishioners, and record those
who visit places of worship of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine," she told
Forum 18.

Obstructing, punishing worship

The Russian authorities in Crimea use the wide range of available laws and
regulations to punish communities that meet for worship in places or in
ways the authorities do not like.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2051)

On 8 November, a Magistrate's Court in Simferopol District fined Imam Aydar
Islyamov one week's average local wages for leading Friday prayers in a
home in the village of Perovo on 11 October (see forthcoming F18News
article).

The Crimean Justice Ministry has rejected the registration application from
the Orthodox Church of Ukraine's Simferopol parish, most recently on 20
September. It claimed there were "violations" in the documents presented. A
Justice Ministry official insisted to Forum 18 from Simferopol that
"nothing in principle" obstructs the registration of communities of the
Orthodox Church of Ukraine (see forthcoming F18News article).

Another community which has been repeatedly denied Russian state
registration is the Tavrida Muftiate, a body independent of the
state-backed Crimean Muftiate. The Justice Ministry has registered ten of
its mosque communities independently, but refuses to register the Tavrida
Muftiate as a centralised religious organisation (see forthcoming F18News
article).

Massively increased rent

The Kiev Patriarchate Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as it then was, has rented
premises that earlier housed the Officers' Club in central Simferopol since
1995. It is there that its Simferopol and Crimea Diocesan Sts Volodymyr and
Olga Cathedral and offices are located. The Diocese has three floors of the
building, with the sanctuary on the middle floor.

Almost all the Kiev Patriarchate's dioceses and parishes – including in
Crimea – joined the Orthodox Church of Ukraine when it was recognised as
canonical by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in January 2019.

In 1996 ultimate ownership of the Simferopol building was transferred from
a disbanded military base to the Crimean Property Fund. In 1997, under a
Crimean Supreme Council decree, rent was set at the symbolic level of 1
Ukrainian Hryvnia (0.5 Norwegian Kroner, 0.05 Euros or 0.08 US Dollars) a
month.

Five of the Kiev Patriarchate's churches in Crimea were forced to close
within months of the March 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1972)

The Sts Volodymyr and Olga Cathedral – which is next to the offices of
the Property Fund - appears on a list of state-owned property in an
attachment to a 15 March 2000 Crimean Supreme Council decree. A 16 May 2001
Supreme Council decree – seen by Forum 18 - governs the Church's use of
the building, whose size it gives as 1,475.7 square metres (15,900 square
feet).

However, on 18 April 2014, the State Council (which replaced the Supreme
Council) adopted a new decree – which remains on the Russian-backed
Crimean government website – amending the 2001 decree. It confirmed the
Diocese's rental of the premises until 2050 but changed the basis on which
rent is levied.

Archbishop Kliment (Kushch), head of the Diocese, told Forum 18 in June
2014 (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1973) that the change
would result in the Diocese having to pay about 160 Russian Roubles per
square metre per month (236,112 Roubles, then equivalent to 42,990
Norwegian Kroner, 5,145 Euros, or 7,000 US Dollars a month). "We're a
non-commercial organisation – how can we pay commercial rates? We live on
donations."

No Russian registration, no rental

The Russian-controlled Crimean State Council amended the Crimean Law on the
Particulars of Regulating Property and Land Issues in Crimea on 31 July
2018. This required that any rental contract for state-owned or
municipally-owned property with an organisation that had state registration
under Ukrainian law but which failed to gain registration under Russian law
after the 2014 annexation be cancelled through the courts.

In his explanation presented to the Crimean State Council justifying the
amendment, the head of Crimea's Russian-backed government Sergei Aksyonov
noted several Ukrainian-owned companies in such a position, but made no
mention of the Orthodox congregation in Simferopol.

Courts order eviction

On 31 January 2019, the Crimean Property and Land Issues Ministry asked the
Federal Tax Service and Justice Ministry in Crimea if the Diocese of the
Orthodox Church of Ukraine had brought its documents into line with Russian
law (i.e. if it had Russian registration). Finding that it had not, the
Ministry wrote to the Diocese on 5 February cancelling the rental agreement
and asking when Ministry inspectors could visit the premises to arrange the
"return" of the building.

On 14 February the Ministry wrote to the Diocese demanding it pay what it
said was unpaid rent and interest of 8.19 Ukrainian Hryvnia (then 2.6
Norwegian Kroner, 0.27 Euros or 0.30 US Dollars). The Ministry received no
reply. However, on 26 February, the Diocese paid 40 Russian Roubles (16.50
Ukrainian Hryvnia, 5.25 Norwegian Kroner, 0.55 Euros or 0.60 US Dollars) to
meet the rent and interest demanded by the Ministry.

On 20 March, the Ministry brought to Crimea's Arbitration Court a suit
against the Diocese to oust it from the Simferopol premises it was renting.
Judge Vadim Shkuro, who heard the case, issued an initial decision mostly
in favour of the Ministry on 28 June 2019 and a full decision (seen by
Forum 18) on 5 July.

The Ministry argued in court that the Diocese owed unpaid rent and interest
on the rent for the period November 2016 to February 2019 of 8.19 Ukrainian
Hryvnia. It called for the November 2002 rental agreement to be cancelled
and for the Diocese to hand back the building to the Ministry.

The Ministry stressed in court that the "motivation" for the suit was the
Diocese's failure to bring its documents into accord with Russian law,
including the amended Crimean Law on the Particulars of Regulating Property
and Land Issues in Crimea (see above).

The Diocese rejected the accusations, insisting that the Ukrainian Crimean
Property Fund (which the Russian authorities liquidated in July 2014) was a
party to the agreement, not the Russian-controlled Crimean Property and
Land Issues Ministry. It also pointed to an April 2014 Crimean State
Council awarding the rental of the property to the Diocese until 2050.

The Court ruled that the Ministry was a party to the 2002 rental agreement
(even though it did not exist then). It claimed that under Ukrainian law,
the Diocese still had to pay the rent in full and on time. However, it
noted that the Diocese had made the February 2019 payments to meet this. It
also found that the Diocese was using the premises not in accordance with
the rental agreement, because as a Ukrainian legal entity but an
unregistered Russian entity, the Diocese was since January 2016 restricted
in what activity it could perform.

Judge Shkuro ruled to annul the 2002 rental agreement and oblige the
Diocese to hand back the premises. He rejected the demand that the Diocese
owed unpaid rent. He required the Diocese to pay in procedural fees 12,000
Russian Roubles (4,500 Ukrainian Hryvnia, 1,725 Norwegian Kroner, 170 Euros
or 190 US Dollars).

The Diocese appealed against the decision to the 21st Arbitration Appeal
Court in Sevastopol. However, in an initial decision on 29 August and a
full decision on 5 September, a panel of three Judges chaired by Andrei
Tarasenko rejected the appeal, according to the decision seen by Forum 18.
The Diocese did not send a representative to the hearing. The court
decision came into force on 29 August when the 21st Arbitration Appeal
Court handed down its initial decision.

The Diocese appealed further, to the Central Region Arbitration Court,
based in the Russian city of Kaluga. However, in an initial decision on 14
November and a full decision on 18 November, a panel of three Judges
chaired by Lyudmila Leonova dismissed the appeal, according to the decision
seen by Forum 18. Again, the Diocese did not send a representative to the
hearing. The Diocese was given two months to make a final appeal to
Russia's Supreme Court in Moscow.

The Diocese lodged a Supreme Court appeal in late November, Sergei Zayets
of the Regional Centre for Human Rights, originally from Crimea but who now
works from the Ukrainian capital Kiev, told Forum 18 on 4 December.

"You are looking at this case from the wrong angle"

Yevgeniya Sheltik of the Property and Land Issues Ministry's Legal
Department represented it in court both in Sevastopol and Kaluga.

"The Arbitration Court decision came into force on 29 August," Sheltik told
Forum 18 from Simferopol on 2 December. "The court bailiffs are the service
that enforces court decisions, not the Ministry."

Asked why the Orthodox Church of Ukraine's Cathedral should be evicted from
the building it has been renting since 1995 and for which it had agreement
to rent until 2050, Sheltik responded: "You are looking at this case from
the wrong angle." She did nto explain what she meant. She then added: "My
competence is to give policy advice to the Ministry. My job was only to
appear in court in the case."

Asked why an agreement made with the Ukrainian authorities before the
Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was no longer valid, Sheltik got
angry, apparently over the reference to the annexation of Crimea. She then
put the phone down.

Forum 18 was therefore unable to ask Sheltik if the Russian authorities
will abide by the United Nations request that they not take action to evict
the community while the Human Rights Committee considers the parishioners'
appeal (see below).

UN Human Rights Committee calls to halt eviction

Meanwhile, on 28 August, 62 parishioners lodged an appeal to the United
Nations Human Rights Committee. Sergei Zayets of the Regional Centre for
Human Rights represents the applicants.

On 6 September the Human Rights Committee asked the Russian government as
an interim measure "not to evict [the first applicant] and his congregation
from the building of their Church in Simferopol, while their case is under
consideration by the Committee", according to the Committee's 6 September
letter to Zayets seen by Forum 18.

On 6 September the Human Rights Committee also asked the Russian government
to provide its response to the appeal within the next six months.

Because of the court case and the Russian authorities' apparent
determination to evict the community, the parishioners submitted further
information to the Human Rights Committee.

"The additional information received from the authors suggests that the
State party authorities are still proceeding to the eviction of the authors
despite the Committee's request," the Committee wrote on 20 September in a
letter seen by Forum 18.

The Committee bluntly repeated its request to the Russian authorities not
to evict the community from its Simferopol cathedral. "The Committee
reminds the State party, that a failure to implement the interim measures
is incompatible with the obligation to respect in good faith the procedure
of individual communications established under the Optional Protocol [to
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]."

The Committee also asked the Russian government not to make public the
names of the parishioners who had submitted the appeal. (END)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Crimea
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=86)

For more background, see Forum 18's Crimea religious freedom survey
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2051)

Forum 18's reports and analyses on freedom of thought, conscience and
belief in Russia within its internationally-recognised territory
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=10)

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1351)

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