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06KIEV578, UKRAINE: ODESA CATHOLICS CONTEMPLATING HUNGER

February 13, 2006

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
06KIEV578 2006-02-13 15:29 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Kyiv
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

 

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 KIEV 000578 

SIPDIS 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/13/2016 
TAGS: PHUM
SUBJECT: UKRAINE: ODESA CATHOLICS CONTEMPLATING HUNGER 
STRIKE 

Classified By: Ambassador for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). 

Summary 
------- 

1. (C) The Roman Catholic Bishop of the Odesa-Simferopol 
diocese, Bronislav Bernatsky, told us February 8 that 
"hundreds" of his parishioners will begin a hunger strike 
March 1 to protest what he described as "the strangulation of 
the Catholic Church" by the Odesa city government.  The 
bishop claimed that Roman Catholics in his diocese were 
outraged by the city's refusal to restitute badly-needed 
Church property, including the diocese seminary building, 
which was being rented out by a government ministry for 
profit.  Bernatsky characterized the Odesa city and oblast 
governments as corrupt, Soviet-style bureaucracies run by 
openly pro-Russia "communist criminals."  This alleged 
pro-Russia bias meant, according to Bernatsky, that the local 
leader of the predominant Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow 
Patriarchate (UOC-MP) had the final say on matters pertaining 
to religion.  Bernatsky alleged that UOC-MP Metropolitan 
Angafangel recently "advised" the Odesa city council to turn 
down a request by Catholic charity Caritas to purchase a 
building to use as a home for 100 street children.  End 
summary. 

Hunger Strike in March? 
----------------------- 

2. (SBU) During a February 8 meeting in his cramped quarters 
at Odesa's Assumption Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Bishop of 
the Odesa-Simferopol diocese, Bronislav Bernatsky, told us 
that "hundreds" of his approximately 16,000 parishioners 
would begin a hunger strike March 1 to protest what he called 
"the strangulation of the Catholic Church" by the Odesa city 
government.  Angered by official footdragging on the 
restitution of Roman Catholic communal property in Odesa, and 
tired of being ignored by Odesa mayor Eduard Hurvits, the 
bishop said his faithful had no choice but to do something 
extreme.  A one-day "warning shot" hunger strike on January 
25 had gotten the mayor's attention, but produced only "more 
empty words" and no action from the government. 

Seminary Is the Focus 
--------------------- 

3. (SBU) Bishop Bernatsky stressed to us that, while the 
Roman Catholic Church had claim to many communal property 
sites in the city, what the diocese needed most was the 
return of its seminary.  Pointing to the building from the 
window of his quarters, Bernatsky explained that the seminary 
had been seized in the Soviet era and turned into a training 
school run by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. 
After Ukrainian independence (1991), the downsized school 
began renting out half of the building, allegedly passing a 
significant cut of the rent to the mayor's office -- an 
arrangement that continued to this day, Bernatsky asserted. 
Bernatsky complained that he had, during his four years as 
bishop, been criticized repeatedly by municipal officials, 
including Hurvits (who assumed office in 2005), for having 
"too many foreign priests" in the diocese.  Bernatsky said he 
had consistently responded by noting that if he could get the 
seminary back, he could recruit and train more priests 
locally -- instead of having to rely on clergy from Poland or 
other cities in Ukraine. 

A Soviet City 
------------- 

4. (C) Bernatsky blasted both the Odesa city and oblast 
governments, characterizing them as deeply corrupt, 
Soviet-style bureaucracies run by "Soviet-era communist 
criminals."  Moreover, the bishop complained, the governments 
were openly pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian.  The same was 
true of the local media, which had a clear pro-Moscow tilt; 
"everything in Odesa," the bishop said, "favors Russia." 
This pro-Russia bias, Bernatsky claimed, meant that 
Metropolitan Angafangel, the local leader of the Ukrainian 
Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP, the local name 
for the Russian Orthodox Church), had the final say on 
matters pertaining to religion. 

"Better Homeless, Hungry and Orthodox than Catholic" 
--------------------------------------------- ------- 

5. (SBU) Bishop Bernatsky asked the director of 
Caritas-Odesa, Father Mykola Hutsal, to provide a specific, 
recent example of how the UOC-MP, and Metropolitan Angafangel 
in particular, influenced local politics.  Hutsal related 
that Caritas had for the past year provided ad hoc food and 
shelter to approximately 100 street children.  With funding 
from an Austria-based Catholic charity, Caritas had 
petitioned the Odesa city government to purchase and renovate 
a building to provide a home for the street kids; the sale 
was put to a vote in the city council and turned down.  When 
Bernatsky and Hutsal inquired about why the sale was vetoed, 
the city council chairman told them the proposal was shot 
down "because you'll turn all the kids into Catholics."  The 
chairman allegedly added that the guidance from Metropolitan 
Angafangel had been clear: better that the street kids were 
"homeless, hungry and Orthodox than Catholic." 

Situation "Worse than under Kuchma" 
----------------------------------- 

6. (C) In closing, as Bernatsky showed us the 
privately-funded renovation work under way at Assumption 
Cathedral, he said that, at least for Roman Catholics in 
Odesa, things had gotten worse in the last year.  This was 
"ironic," Bernatsky said, given that Odesa's Catholic 
community had at some risk publicly prayed for free and fair &#
x000A;presidential elections in 2004 and supported the Orange 
Revolution.  Bernatsky, who entered the priesthood in 1972 
and attended seminary in Riga, acknowledged that Ukraine had 
made a lot of progress since the Soviet era, "when we were 
beaten, exiled and shot."  He said that then-President Leonid 
Kuchma had done a decent job of addressing the concerns of 
Ukraine's Catholics, even if largely out of fear of being 
criticized by the Vatican and Western countries.  President 
Yushchenko, by contrast, felt he had been given a free pass 
by the West; thus, in Bernatsky's view, the Orange president 
paid lip service to religious freedom, but took no action to 
actually advance it. 

Out To Lunch 
------------ 

7. (SBU) We had hoped to meet with the head of the Odesa 
Oblast Department of Religious Issues, but were thwarted in 
genuine Soviet style.  The department chief had agreed to 
meet with us during our visit, and even set a time.  However, 
as the time for the meeting drew near, he called us to 
express his growing anxiety about "meeting with foreigners." 
When we arrived for the meeting, the man's secretary simply 
informed us that he had "disappeared." 

Comment 
------- 

8. (C) Bishop Bernatsky's assertion that Yushchenko has done 
nothing to advance religious freedom is wide of the mark; 
it's a characterization not shared by any other major 
religious leader that we know of.  That said, the bishop's 
frustration about the glacial pace of communal property 
registration is widely shared and is a concern common to all 
of Ukraine's major Christian denominations as well as the 
country's sizeable Jewish and Muslim (primarily Crimean 
Tatar) communities.  Leaders from across Ukraine's religious 
spectrum have repeatedly told us that they don't doubt 
Yushchenko's sincerity on the issue; what frustrates them is 
the continued lack of results. 

9. (C) What is happening to Roman Catholics in Odesa may be 
an unintended consequence of President Yushchenko's 
well-meaning April 2005 decision to abolish the State 
Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA) and lessen the 
government's role in religion.  The SCRA, while deeply 
flawed, did help protect the interests of minority religious 
groups and help resolve some property restitution cases. 
Yushchenko's scrapping of the SCRA has, in effect, left 
minority religious groups more susceptible to the influences 
of the dominant local religious organization; in some areas 
this means the UOC-MP.  We should note, however, that in 
western Ukraine's Lviv Oblast, where Catholics dominate the 
city council, the UOC-MP is facing difficulties similar to 
those described by Bishop Bernatsky. 
HERBST

 

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