UKRAINE: Christian University 'Under Threat'.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 November 2002

Despite the withdrawal on 5 November of a legal suit to suspend the activity of the Odessa-based Christian Open University of Economy and Humanitarian Sciences, university staff still fear that the local justice authorities will continue their battle to close down the university. "Although the regional justice department withdrew the suit, we can't feel safe," the dean of the theological faculty, Pyotr Pavlyuk, told Keston News Service from Odessa on 8 November. "They still want to close us down." Rostislav Kryzhanovsky, the rector of the university, agreed. "They had to withdraw their suit as they realised they had no legal basis for it," he told Keston on 11 November, "but we doubt that this will be the end of the attempts to shut us down."

Kryzhanovsky described the justice department's suit as being based on "mendacious and far-fetched pretexts". He said the regional justice department wanted to have the university fined and its activity halted for three months because of alleged failures to abide by the law. Kryzhanovsky said it had complained that internal university documentation was in Russian rather than Ukrainian, that the legal address of the university was not where lessons currently take place "and many other petty reasons". He maintained that as the university is registered as a social rather than a state organisation, it does not need to maintain documents in Ukrainian. He also denies that the legal address is in violation of the law. "We used to teach there and I can still be reached there, so this is not a legal violation."

Reached by telephone on 11 November, the receptionist at the regional justice department told Keston that "no-one" was available to explain why the justice department had sought to halt the Christian university's activity and whether such attempts would continue. "What proof do we have that you are who you say you are?" asked the receptionist, who declined to give her full name. She said the department head Nikolai Lesogorov was away until 14 November.

Keston then reached Lesogorov's deputy, Andrei Sedov, who declined to discuss the case. "I am not in the picture and can't comment on it," he told Keston. Asked whether social organisations are allowed to use Russian for internal documentation, Sedov said that Ukrainian was the state language. He then said that he could not answer any queries by phone or fax (he said they did not have e-mail), declined to enter into any further discussion and put the phone down.

Both Kryzhanovsky and Pavlyuk insist that despite what they say are attempts to close it down the university has the right in law to exist. Pavlyuk maintains that the authorities dislike the university because it is Christian. "No other universities of this type exist in Ukraine," he declared. "The most important thing is that it is Christian, not Orthodox. If it was Orthodox, there wouldn't be such problems." He added that the university's refusal to pay bribes has complicated the situation. "If we paid bribes we would be OK. Ukraine is a very corrupt country."

The justice department presented its suit to the university on 15 August and, although it should have been presented to the Economic Court of Odessa region on the same day, it did not reach the court until 20 September. The first hearing took place on 22 October, but the justice department failed to turn up. "The judge saw there was no proof of the justice department's claims in the suit and demanded this proof," Kryzhanovsky reported. A second hearing was scheduled for 5 November, at which the justice department withdrew the suit.

Sergei Sannikov, executive director of the Odessa-based Euro-Asian Accrediting Association - which accredits Christian colleges throughout the CIS and Baltic republics - describes the Christian university as an "active member" of his association. "I have read the justice department's suit," he told Keston from Odessa on 11 November, "and although I am not a lawyer I believe the accusations are not serious enough to warrant closing the university." He said the fact that the justice department had now withdrawn the suit was "testimony that the suit was weak and had not been well-enough prepared".

The university - which was established in 1997 by professors of Odessa and Moscow and the pastors of a non-denominational Protestant Church in the Odessa suburb of Peresyp - claims to be the first public university in Ukraine based on Christian principles that "entirely conforms to Ukrainian law and world practice". It teaches a range of subjects, including theology, economics, management and law. It was registered by the regional justice administration in 1997. Pavlyuk reported that there are now some 1,050 students from several countries, 300 of them full-time and the rest part-time. "Protestants, Adventists, Orthodox, Catholics, even non-Christians study here." He said there was no fixed fee for courses, but students pay what they can afford.

Kryzhanovsky reports that there has long been harassment of the university. He said that when it first announced it would be accepting students in 1998 the university faced "heavy pressure" from the authorities, though he believes this was the personal initiative of individual officials rather than state policy.

He said pressure increased at the end of last year, when the university sought to buy up more privately-owned flats. The owners complained to ten state agencies, he claimed. A joint justice department and education department commission spent a month examining the working of the university. The tax authorities were also brought in. "They even tried to use firemen with the purpose of sealing up the premises," Kryzhanovsky declared.

He claims that a tyre on the pastor's car was punctured and a briefcase stolen from the car as he was examining the damage. One university employee was briefly detained. He said a bug had been found in his office. Attempts had been made to close the university's student hostel.

"We act within the limits of Ukrainian law and the charter of our organisation," Kryzhanovsky declared. "We do not violate laws, but we see the intention of certain organisations to prevent us from carrying out our Christian activity for the welfare of Ukraine and to close the university by any means." (END)