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RUSSIA: Auction to end Old Believer church restitution hopes?

In 2010, Russia passed the Law on the Transfer of Religious Property to Religious Organizations, to ensure that historical properties seized in the Soviet era would be returned to their rightful owners. While some groups have successfully regained their heritage, others received rejection, long delays, and even broken promises. The Old Believers community of Yekaterinburg has made repeated efforts to recover their historical church building, and were finally promised the church’s return by the regional governor last year. The administration proved unresponsive to follow-up, however, and put the promised property up for auction last month.

By Victoria Arnold

5/23/2014 Russia (Forum 18) – The former Old Believer Holy Trinity Church, on Rosa Luxemburg Street in central Yekaterinburg, is due to be auctioned on 11 June, despite regional Governor Yevgeny Kuyvashev’s assurances to Old Believers that it would be returned to them. The church functioned from the 1880s until its confiscation in the 1930s, and latterly housed a tuberculosis clinic.

The group seeking the return of the building belongs to the Belokrinitsa Concord of Old Believers. The Old Believers… separated from the official Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century in protest against liturgical reforms, and they carry on liturgical practices in use before this time.

In July 2013, [Governor] Kuyvashev… “responded positively to the [Church’s] request, noting that at the end of 2013 or a little later… the building should be handed over to the Old Believer community,” the Church’s website noted.

As required by the Governor’s office, immediately after the meeting, the Church sent an official request for the transfer. But the administration never registered receipt of this letter, Maksim Gusev, press secretary of the Church’s Urals Diocese, told Forum 18 on 15 May. The Old Believers, however, trusted the Governor’s word.

In early April, however, Sverdlovsk Regional Property Fund announced the auction of the building and associated land with a starting price of 355.64 million Roubles (…10.4 million US Dollars), according to sale documents seen by Forum 18.

Rosa Luxemburg Street lies in a zone of intensive housing development… The Old Believers fear that if the former church is sold to a developer, it will be impossible to regain it, as it will likely be demolished.

Urals Diocese press secretary Gusev still hopes the Old Believers may yet regain their church. “Logic, common sense, the Governor’s promise, and historical justice compel us to believe that the church building will be handed over to its rightful owners,” he told Forum 18. “But officials are doing everything to obscure the situation and delay the outcome. So now it is difficult to make predictions.”

Gusev stressed that the Old Believers “do not despair,” though. “Every Sunday at five o’clock they come to the front of the building to pray again and again and ask God for the return of the property which was originally theirs.”

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