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“They can destroy buildings, but not the spirit,” – Crimean Archbishop on Russia’s religious persecution

Archbishop Klyment. Photo: RFE/RL
“They can destroy buildings, but not the spirit,” – Crimean Archbishop on Russia’s religious persecution

Russia continues to oppress Ukrainian citizens in the occupied Crimea not only for their civil stance, but also for their religion. Crimean Tatar Muslims and Christian Orthodox worshipers belonging to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) not in union with Moscow, formerly known as the Kyiv Patriarchate, are the targets. On the occupied peninsula, the Russian authorities are attempting to evict the main cathedral of the OCU through obedient courts.

The church remains the only Ukrainian center in Crimea. Its Archbishop Klyment also ministers for Ukrainian political prisoners in the occupied Crimea and in Russia. During the press conference of Volodymyr Balukh, an ex-political prisoner of the Kremlin who kept raising the Ukrainian flagabove his house in occupied Crimea and who was among the 35 Ukrainians released from Russian captivity on 7 September, the Archbishop told about the challenges of his ministry.

The Cathedral of the OCU in Simferopol. Photo: RFE/RL

Archbishop Klyment told journalists that his task in Crimea was to minister to Ukrainians who were in pre-trial detention facilities in accordance with the acting laws. He became Balukh’s public defender because of the limitations Russia places on priests and other religious ministers. The lawyers Dmitri and Olga Dinze helped him to prepare all the needed documents.

“According to Russian law, I could not come to the colony as a priest to confess or give Communion to Volodymyr Balukh. However, in the status of a public defender, I could visit him and be present at court hearings,” Klyment said.

The Archbishop said that his presence was important because until Balukh was brought in Simferopol, his lawyers not always had an opportunity to visit him.

Dmitry Dinze also explained why Russia prevents Ukrainian priests from visiting prisoners.

“In Russia, Ukrainian prisoners are not allowed to worship. Archbishop Klyment belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. And they’re imposing the Russian Orthodox Church on [Ukrainian] political prisoners. They don’t allow them to see a Ukrainian priest. This is done so that people couldn’t confess, couldn’t tell about all the pain and what is going on in their prison life. And those priests at the colonies and prisons, you know yourself who they report to.”

Archbishop Klyment visiting Volodymyr Balukh in prison. Photo: Mykhailo Batrak

On 3 March 2019, Archbishop Klyment was detained himself in Crimea. It happened the day he was going to travel to Rostov-on-Don to meet Pavlo Hryb, an ex-Kremlin prisoner who also was among the released 35 Ukrainians. The same day he was released without a protocol being drawn up. Klyment said that that day the lawyer Nikolai Polozov was near him and considered the detention a possible attempt to thwart Klyment’s visit of Ukrainians in Russian prisons. Before the detention, the question of visiting Ukrainian sailors in Lefortovo prison was on the agenda.

“Nikolai Polozov said that the majority of the [24] sailors [Russia detained in the Kerch Strait in November 2018] wrote an appeal [to the chiefs of the Lefortovo detention facility] for me being allowed to visit them. So I and Nikolai think that the detention was provoked in a way to deprive me of this opportunity. That they wanted to initiate some case against me, an administrative arrest or something, to have some argument as to why they continue to disallow me [from visiting prisoners] in the future, because I was arrested myself. However, eventually everything was resolved.”

Klyment said that he was allowed to visit some prisoners and disallowed from visiting others.

“They let me visit Yevhen Panov, Volodymyr Balukh, but I was prevented from visiting Oleg Sentsov. Still, thanks to the wise work of Dmitri Dinze, Askold Kurov visited him instead of me, and for the first time during the long period he interviewed Sentsov and told the world what was going on with him when he was on the hunger strike.”

Klyment admits that the hardest part of his ministry was to talk to the mothers of prisoners. He told journalists that mothers of Yevhen Panov and Oleksandr Kostenko went through the Simferopol Church. Klyment also had conversations with the mothers of Oleg Sentsov and Volodymyr Balukh.

“The scariest moment of my life was when Volodymyr was under house arrest and then he was taken to court. I was so afraid to come to Volodymyr’s mother after the court and tell her that she will not see him for some period. To say that your child will stay alive, that everything will be alright, knowing about the killings and torture, is a very responsible task. I had to believe it myself and to give this hope to the parents.”

The bishop also told how the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Crimea had helped the prisoners. He could not have revealed some of the details before.

“Our parishioners of the Ukrainian Church helped parents attend court hearings. They helped deliver care packages to prisons. Yevhen Panov’s mother had a Ukrainian passport. However, we were told in the Simferopol prison that holders of Ukrainian passports couldn’t give packages to prisoners. Someone with a Russian one was needed. At first, people were afraid to give the package to him because his case was related to sabotage. However, we found people who helped.”

In February 2019, the Russian Ministry of Property and Land Relations of Crimea demanded the Crimean Diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church leave the Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Sts. Vladimir and Olga, saying its contract had expired.

On 28 June, the so-called arbitral tribunal of Crimea controlled by Russia ordered that the premises of the cathedral be given to the Russian Ministry of Property of Crimea. The Archbishop stated that he would appeal the decision. Later, the property of the Cathedral was looted.

Klyment recognizes that he does not control the situation with the Cathedral anymore.

“The court hearings took place already – of the arbitration court, of the court of appeal. Their decisions were written not in courts, but in the cabinets of the Federal Security Service of Russia [FSB], as during these so-called hearings an FSB officer was present.”

Klyment says that it is not a fight just for the premises, but for the existence of the Ukrainian Church in Crimea.

“Our activities and presence irritate the Russian government. They think that if they deliver a blow to this sole Ukrainian spiritual center, which in fact is the only remaining Ukrainian focus in Crimea, they would destroy Ukrainian roots. They can destroy the building, but they will not destroy the spirit.”

The Archbishop also noted that there are a lot of Crimean Tatars who are persecuted for their faith in Crimea.

“They were praying at home, which contradicted the law of Yarovaya [named after Iryna Yarovaya, a Russian MP] which forbids to hold any prayings at home. These Crimean Tatars did not find a place in a mosque. They are judged because they prayed to God. I don’t know who are they, whether they belong to Hizb-ut-Tahrir [a peaceful Muslim movement which Russia tries to present as terrorists] or not. Before 2014 [Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea], no one was running with a shahid belt and there were no terrorist attacks. If they are praying, let them pray. To judge against a faith is a sin against God, against the Creator.”

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