RUSSIA: State interrogations of Komi breakaway Orthodox

State interrogations of members of the breakaway Orthodox community at Komi and those associated with them are claimed to have continued, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, including attempts to intimidate teenage school children, as well as municipal employees, who attend services at the monastery. This has taken place even after an apparently conclusive court ruling in the monastery's favour.

An Orthodox monastery and its parishioners in the north-eastern European Russian republic of Komi have been harassed by the secular authorities since spring 1999, when they broke from the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese of Syktyvkar and Vorkuta to join the US-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. At the same time, they maintain, grave allegations of unlawful activity within the Moscow Patriarchate diocese are not investigated by law enforcement agencies. (See forthcoming F18News article) The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was formed as a temporary church administration in the early 1920s by exiled bishops cut off from the Patriarchate in the Soviet Union, which was heavily influenced by the then new atheist regime. Since 1990 it has established church structures within Russia.

On 14 April 1999, after the monastery announced its decision to join the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, local Moscow Patriarchate Bishop Pitirim (Volochkov) of Syktyvkar and Vorkuta, Sysola district head Ivan Kiselev and the then state official dealing with religious affairs in Komi republic, Valentina Kulimova, approached Votcha, a village of some 150 residents approximately 60km south of the Komi capital Syktyvkar, in several vehicles headed by a marked police car. Access to the village, where the breakaway St Stefan of Afanasyevo Monastery is based, is only possible via a crossing point on the then frozen River Sysola, which a crowd of several hundred local parishioners and sympathisers had blocked with two cars.

In a short video film of these events viewed by Forum 18 in Votcha on 7 July, the villagers shout "Clear off!" and "Anaxios!" ("Unworthy!"- the Greek word "Axios", or "Worthy," normally being used to greet the ordination of an Orthodox bishop) when Bishop Pitirim, in full episcopal vestments, approaches them across the ice singing the Easter troparion. A police officer then offers the bishop use of his car's loudspeaker, through which the bishop accuses the breakaway clergy of theft and calls them "American fascists." Showing Forum 18 the film, the monastery's abbot, Fr Stefan (Babayev), stated that this stand-off continued for several hours, after which the police informed the villagers that they were breaking the law and retreated with the bishop.

The only monastic building in Votcha then was a former school given to the Moscow Patriarchate diocese in 1996, which the approximately 10 brothers repaired to house a refectory, store, monastic cells, workshop, candleworks and banya. Babayev acknowledged to Forum 18 that this building, which, he said, was occupied by Patriarchate personnel on 16 April 1999 and has since inexplicably burnt down, belonged to the diocese – members of the breakaway monastic community later bought several smaller buildings elsewhere in Votcha. Babayev believes that the Patriarchate diocese also intended to seize a wooden church where the community meets for services, a few minutes walk from the former school. This is also suggested by the Patriarchate diocese's account of the April 1999 stand-off published afterwards in a local state newspaper "Tribuna." It states that Bishop Pitirim intended to hold an Easter-tide service at Votcha monastery, "the property of Syktyvkar diocese." But the wooden church was built in 1994 by local writer Yuri Yekishev, formerly a prominent figure in the Patriarchate diocese as secretary of its main St Stefan of Prokopyevsk Brotherhood, but now also with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

In an open letter to Sysola district administration published on 9 April 2002 in local newspaper "Mayak Sysoly," 113 residents of Votcha and nearby Pervomaisky villages complain that, having failed to take their Church of Holy New Martyr Viktor (Ostrovidov) by force on 14 April 1999, the Patriarchate diocese is now seeking to seize it through the courts. Interviewed by Forum 18 on 7 July at his home in the neighbouring hamlet of Yagdor, Yuri Yekishev stated that Votcha Village Council had legally allocated him, as a private individual, a plot of land for the construction of a chapel in October 1993. In accordance with relevant changes in property regulations, said Yekishev, he registered the church subsequently erected by himself and his friends as his own private property with the Sysola district authorities in June 2001.

An initial lawsuit by the Patriarchate diocese was refused by Sysola district federal court in 1999 due to incorrectly drawn up documentation. But in 2001 Mother Vasilisya (Mosyagina) filed suit against Yekishev, claiming that the wooden church belonged to her community. Fr Stefan (Babayev) explained to Forum 18 News Service that the Patriarchate diocese founded Mother Vasilisya's convent in the neighbouring village of Pervomaisky soon after the stand-off on the frozen Sysola, giving it exactly the same name as the breakaway monastic community - which, according to Yekishev, constituted "an attempt to create a community to which my church belonged." In the Moscow Patriarchate's 2001 official directory of monasteries and convents, the monastery in Votcha is stated as having been "transformed" into the convent in Pervomaisky in September 1999 "due to the small number of monks."

Yekishev won the 2001 case, citing the October 1993 Votcha Village Council decree and arguing that, since the Votcha parish charter was registered only in January 1995 and the Syktyvkar and Vorkuta diocese formed only at the end of the same year, these entities did not and could not have played any part in the funding or construction of the wooden church. The case was heard together with a suit brought by Komi republic's public prosecutor, who claimed that the land allocation had been conducted in violation of the law, since it was too close to a (now ruined) nineteenth-century stone church. Komi republic's Supreme Court later overturned this verdict, however, ruling that Syktyvkar and Vorkuta diocese and Komi republic's Department for Historical and Cultural Monuments should have been included alongside Mosyagina as plaintiffs. Yekishev won the subsequent analogous case in October 2002, against which verdict an appeal by Komi republic's public prosecutor was unsuccessful.

In an interview with Forum 18 News Service in her office on 8 July, the adviser on religious issues to the assistant head of Komi republic, Galina Gabusheva, suggested that police officers had led the bishop's vehicles to Votcha in April 1999 "to make sure that nothing untoward happened." She was unable to provide any further information about the situation concerning the wooden church.

Even after an October 2002 court ruling in their favour, pressure on the Votcha-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad community continues. Olga Kuznetsova, the lawyer of Yuri Yekishev (main defendant in the case for ownership of the community's wooden church) is also an employee in the mayor's office of the Komi capital, Syktyvkar. On 26 October 2002 local newspaper "Stefanovsky Bulvar" claimed that the Komi public prosecutor tried to find her "guilty of violating labour law" soon after Yekishev's victory in the final court case. According to Fr Stefan (Babayev), abbot of the breakaway Votcha monastery, a municipal architect who appeared as a defence witness for the community has since been threatened with dismissal.

Interviewed by Forum 18 on 7 July, Babayev said he had been interrogated by state authorities on ten occasions from spring 1999 to March 2003. In seven of these, he said, Sysola district police accused him of: stealing donations given to the local Patriarchate diocese of Syktyvkar and Vorkuta; burning down the former school in Votcha which the monastic community occupied before joining the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad; stealing the remains after the alleged arson attempt; and vandalising a wooden cross erected on the site by the Patriarchate diocese. Two interrogations each lasted four hours and were said to be conducted in a rough manner by an official of the Komi republic's public prosecutor. These consisted mainly of accusations of economic and organised crime. The tenth was conducted by the republic's tax police. Officials have not formally drawn up a case against Babayev.

"Now our children are being interrogated," wrote 85 Votcha parishioners in an open letter to the head of Komi republic, Vladimir Torlopov, published in local newspaper "Mayak Sysoly" on 12 November 2002. Anton Kamyshov (aged 16), Irina Sergeyev (17), Natalya Klyapyshev (17) and Sofiya Kamyshova (17) were interrogated by four officials from the republic's public prosecutor "in Pervomaisky village school," state villagers. In an interview on 10 July, one of the pupils, Sofiya Kamyshova, said she was summoned from a literature lesson to the head teacher's study and asked whether she went to church voluntarily, or whether the priests forced her to go. "It was unpleasant, although not frightening," she told Forum 18. "They tried to get us to fill out documents, but we understood that it was a crooked business and refused." In her view, officials wanted to construct a case against Fr Stefan (Babayev) and had selected the four pupils because they had showed support for the monks by attending the recent court case concerning Votcha's wooden church. According to Babayev, 24 local school pupils attend services at least occasionally.

In a reply to the Votcha villagers published by local newspaper "Molodezh Severa," Komi public prosecutor Viktor Kovalevsky cites two official requests his office received from Syktyvkar and Vorkuta diocese. The first was to examine the legality of the land allocation for the construction of the wooden church in Votcha, which culminated in the 2002 court case against Yekishev. The second was to examine alleged "collaboration" between Pervomaisky school and Votcha's Russian Orthodox Church Abroad community, but no case was found since "the participation by children in worship services is not prohibited by current legislation." Not mentioning the interrogation at the school, Kovalevsky concluded that the public prosecutor is required by law to respond to requests received from Komi citizens, including those representing the Patriarchate diocese.

Speaking to Forum 18 on 22 July, the senior assistant to Komi public prosecutor initially described the dispute between the Patriarchate diocese and the breakaway community in Votcha as an "internal church affair." Igor Voityuk then acknowledged that procuracy officials had investigated once a question of minors being coerced into church attendance had arisen, but that no case had been established. Forum 18 asked if procuracy officials were examining or intended to examine claims of alleged illegal activity by the local Patriarchate diocese, as well as complaints against Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and Baptist (see F18News 23 July 2003) communities. Voityuk said that his office had received no information about such claims, but if they received complaints from Komi citizens about crimes "we will intervene" whatever the identity of the alleged perpetrators. He surmised that, since he had not heard of the elderly parishioner's written complaint about the monastery in Vazhkurye, it must have "remained at the level of the head of the republic."

In an interview with Forum 18 News Service on 8 July, the adviser on religious issues to the assistant head of Komi republic, Galina Gabusheva, also maintained that the public prosecutor officials had questioned both the pupils and Fr Stefan (Babayev) in response to claims from Moscow Patriarchate Bishop Pitirim (Volochkov) of Syktyvkar and Vorkuta, which they were legally obliged to pursue.

On 8 July Forum 18 spoke to diocesan secretary Fr Filip (Filippov) and requested an interview with either Bishop Pitirim or himself on either 9 or 10 July. Calling back as requested on the morning of 10 July, Forum 18 was informed that Fr Filip had not yet arrived at the diocesan offices. Calling in person at 1pm, a secretary told Forum 18 that both bishop and Fr Filip apologised that an interview would no longer be possible, since they had both had to leave on an "urgent work-related trip." Later the same day, an informed source in Syktyvkar told Forum 18 that the diocese only spoke to journalists it had accredited.