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Religious leaders in Crimea face expulsion by Russia

07 November 2014


Disputed: voting at a polling station at a university in Donetsk, on Sunday 

Disputed: voting at a polling station at a university in Donetsk, on Sunday 

CHURCHES in the Crimea peninsula of Ukraine, annexed by Russia, are set to lose their religious leaders after a new law passed by the Kremlin stripped all Ukrainian registered entities of their legal status.

Under the law, all visas and resident permits issued by Ukraine will cease to have effect; and all organisations registered in the Ukraine must register instead with the Russian authorities or lose their status.

The Kremlin annexed Crimea in March despite condemnation from the Ukrainian government in Kiev and the international community (News, 21 March).

The Forum 18 News Service, a Christian organisation monitoring religious freedom from its headquarters in Oslo, says that Fr Piotr Rosochacki, a Polish national who has been the Roman Catholic priest of Simferopol parish for five years, has already had to leave Crimea; and that "all other Catholic priests and nuns will have to leave by the end of 2014," when the law takes effect.

The Russian authorities refused to extend Fr Rosochacki's Ukrainian residence permit, which expired on 24 October.

The Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Most Revd Sviatoslav Shevchuk, told Forum 18 that four of its five Crimean parishes were now without priests.

The cancellation of residence permits for foreign nationals has not affected the independent Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Eleven of its priests in Crimea have taken Russian citizenship; others, however, are able to continue using their Ukrainian passports for the time being, as they were registered as Crimean residents at the time of the March annexation.

"We went through some tough times earlier this year, but the situation has now normalised", Metropolitan Kliment of Simferopol & Crimea told Forum 18.

The move doesn't apply only to Christians. Of the 23 Turkish imams and religious teachers serving the Muslim community in Crimea, 18 have already had to leave, and the remaining five must go by the end of the year.

Five religious organisations, including Protestant Evangelicals and an Islamic group, have sought registration under the new law. All five have been refused.

Elsewhere in Crimea, tensions are rising again in the breakaway eastern regions after separatist leaders held elections last weekend, which were won by pro-Russian candidates.

The Minsk Agreement, which paved the way for a ceasefire between the separatists and the Ukrainian government in September, contained provisions for limited autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk, with elections - organised by Kiev - planned for December.

Last weekend's elections have been roundly condemned by the European Union and the United States. The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, issued a joint statement with his counterparts in the Visegrad Group - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia - describing the elections as "illegitimate".

Russia, however, welcomed the elections. They were, it said, "held in an organised way in general and with high voter turnout. We respect the will expression of the citizens of the south-east."

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