Restitution of Church Property: Moral Duty or Immoral Privatization?

17 May 2007, 14:57 | Comments | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Maksym VASIN, expert on legal questions at the Institute of Religious Freedom, master of law

Commentary on the decision of the Parliament of Ukraine to reject bill2758 “On introduction of changes in certain laws of Ukraine (regarding the moratorium on privatization of worship buildings which are part of state and communal property)”

Moral aspects

In the maelstrom of political events in Ukraine which has recently been attracting much attention of the citizens, Parliament seems to have deliberated somewhat unnoticed on a very important issue for churches and religious organizations. In five minutes, the coalition deputies managed to discuss and pass a decision to reject a bill on making amendments to certain laws of Ukraine regarding a moratorium on privatization of property of state or communal ownership[1] intended for religious purposes (registered under № 2758, authors: O. Turchynov, O. Bodnar, faction of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc).

Such hasty decisions undoubtedly look odd against the background of the deputies’ rhetoric about the necessity of returning churches, prayer houses, synagogues, mosques, and other property to religious organizations. For the problem is not only about the fact that churches and religious organizations rightfully expect the restitution of property confiscated from them in Soviet times, which property was owned by them or created by their own resources, but also mostly in the moral plane.

The state should not make empty promises as it assures churches of its intentions to return former religious buildings, yet at the same time allows commercial organizations to privatize them and turn them into entertainment establishments or re-sell them to the churches at considerably higher prices. Given such approaches, the process of restitution in Ukraine might not be completed even as far as the restitution of real estate is concerned, for there will be nothing to return, and believers will again and again have to face insults with respect to their religious feelings and sacrilege. In confirmation, one can give known examples of the privatization of religious buildings which were to be returned to churches according to governmental lists. However, the existence of governmental lists of churches and other church buildings claimed by religious organizations did not stop someone from passing these sites to private hands, and, therefore, the need arises to regulate this question in a legislative way.

One should recall that the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations has repeatedly approached Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine regarding this problem, but there were no responses, proposals or remarks on this issue from the state authorities, as if the problem did not exist.

Even though the deputies rejected bill 2758, they will still have to return to this question, as the present facts and existing tendencies are not comforting.

Legal aspects

Bill 2758 was to introduce a moratorium on the privatization of religious buildings (including former ones) to be returned to churches and religious organizations, their former owners. Before and during Soviet rule, many religious buildings were built or renovated with the funds of believers, but they simply were not able to establish the right of ownership thereto legally under totalitarian rule, for religious organizations were deprived of any legal status. In this context, references of deputies to the necessity of the clear establishment of a legal connection between subjects and objects of restitution look not very sincere.

The mechanism of the restitution of former church property should take into account many factors, which are to be defined in a special law on restitution. Despite a recent statement of Speaker of Parliament O. Moroz that “The Fund of State Property of Ukraine made up a register of all religious buildings and Parliament has developed a respective bill regulating the order of transfer thereof to religious communities,” [2] there is no law on restitution in Ukraine at the moment, and there are no legislative initiatives in this regard in the Parliament of Ukraine. In view of the above, bill 2758 was intended to suspend the process of privatization of former church property by persons not related to religious organizations until the passing of a law on restitution. The bill cannot be called legally perfect (which might be corrected during its preparation for a second reading), but, regardless, no proposals on its improvement were heard in the session hall.

According to the shorthand report of the session [3], the coalition deputies noted that bill 2758 was to define the mechanism of restitution, but was not by any means to touch on questions of privatization and, therefore, was rejected. A certain role in this was played also by the conclusion of the Cabinet of Ministers in which the government expressed its position of no support for the mentioned initiative.

This confirms the idea that the Ukrainian political environment shows a certain lack of understanding of the needs of religious freedom. Consequently, for many years there have been no decisions of Parliament to improve the condition of religious organizations. Therefore, representatives of the civil authorities, who remain inactive during the privatization and reselling of church property by local government structures, willingly or not, become accomplices of this moral crime against Ukrainian society and should bear at least political responsibility.

Finally, one can mention the events of summer 2006 in Bakhchysarai (Crimean Autonomous Republic) [4], which in their essence may continue in the near future if the present authorities do not create conditions for the fair restitution of property confiscated from religious groups. For in this issue time is not in favor of the representatives of the state, as unresolved property conflicts may explode later…

1 Official web site of the Parliament of Ukraine:
2 Newspaper «Kommersant-Ukraina» № 76 of 15 May, 2007. – page 2 /
3 Official web site of the Parliament of Ukraine:
4 «Inter-ethnic differences: Conflict about a market in Bakhchisarai grew into mass carnage » // Newspaper «Kommersant-Ukraina» № 140 of 14 August, 2006. – page1 /

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