RUSSIA: Latest Destruction of Orthodox Church 'The First Time the Authorities Took Any Notice

by Geraldine Fagan and Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 4 November 2002

Although not the first such incident in Naberezhnyye Chelny, the destruction of the Orthodox Church of St Tatyana on 1 October was "the first time the authorities took any notice," the secretary of the Moscow Patriarchate's local deanery has told Keston News Service. Naberezhnyye Chelny is the second largest city in the republic of Tatarstan, one of the strongest Islamic areas of Russia.

Speaking to Keston from Naberezhnyye Chelny on 31 October, Vitali Sidorenko detailed the troubled history of the construction of the Church of St Tatyana. A preliminary wooden chapel was burnt down in May 1999, he said, but no one was arrested. Neither did police officers arrest those who attempted to remove masonry at the site of a subsequent, stone church building on 17 July 2002. "They just told them to go away," Sidorenko remarked, "even though they vowed that they would return and prevent the construction of the church."

Although a criminal investigation has been instigated for the first time in the wake of the October attack, Sidorenko maintains that the case against a group of elderly women whom police found attempting to dismantle the church when they arrived at the site appears weak, since they can easily be proven to be physically incapable of inflicting serious damage. He claims that the real perpetrators are a group of younger people who quickly left the scene after an eyewitness saw them carrying out the attack and alerted the Orthodox. This group represents Tatar nationalist and Muslim extremist organisations, in Sidorenko's view, although these will not admit to any connection with the attacks.

The current construction site of the Church of St Tatyana is also the fourth that the Orthodox have been allocated by the local authorities, Sidorenko told Keston. They agreed to withdraw from the first two, he said, after officials explained that there was public opposition to an Orthodox church being built first on a street named after the Tatar heroine Syumbike and then on part of a Second World War memorial park, since Tatar Muslims were among the war dead. The municipal authorities then inexplicably began planting trees on the third site, according to Sidorenko, which made construction impossible. The Orthodox, however, "didn't want to make a fuss," he said.

Sidorenko also told Keston that there have been earlier attacks on Orthodox churches in Naberezhnyye Chelny. In 1996 no one was detained for acts of arson against wooden crosses at the building sites of Churches of St George and St Serafim of Sarov, he said, even though the latter is some 200 metres (yards) from a police station.

On 8 October Patriarch Aleksi II wrote to Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev expressing concern about the latest attack on the Church of St Tatyana and noting that "interreligious and interethnic relations in Tatarstan are far from the norm". On 6 October a spokesman for the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Tatarstan maintained that "people who destroy religious buildings with their bare hands cannot be true Muslims".

Contacted by Keston on 31 October, Vyacheslav Nikiforov of Tatarstan's state Council for Religious Affairs would say only that the problems in Naberezhnyye Chelny were "not of an ethnic-confessional nature" and that a criminal investigation had been instigated into the 1 October attack on the Church of St Tatyana.

In a separate incident, a Russian internet site reported on 17 October that the village authorities of Khomutinino, Chelyabinsk region, recently bulldozed the foundations of an Orthodox church, including a consecrated foundation stone. According to the report, the local Orthodox parish was formed in 1998 with the blessing of Patriarch Aleksi and Archbishop Iov of Chelyabinsk and Zlatoust, and the legal documentation for the church construction was entirely in order.

Speaking to Keston from Chelyabinsk on 21 October, however, Archbishop Iov maintained that construction of the church had been stalled for two years since no one was prepared to finance it. "If there are no believers who will help build the church, then why build it for nobody?" he remarked. The archbishop said that he knew that the church site had been levelled by the local administration, but voiced no complaint about what had happened.

Contacted by Keston on 18 October, head of Chelyabinsk regional department for the affairs of national, religious and social organisations, Asiya Khamzina, said that she had heard nothing about the case in Khomutinino. (END)