Christians Fight for Moscow ‘Gem’

“We are staying here round the clock to try to prevent the illegal seizure”
( [email protected] ) Dec 19, 2003 11:10 AM EST

Nearly 30 Christians decided to stay “under siege” to protect what they call the ‘gem’ of all Methodist property in Moscow. The activists, all members of the Kwan Lim Methodist Church center, remained inside the church building since Dec. 15 to prevent outsiders from taking the building and changing the center’s ownership.

The Kwan Lim (Kvanrim in Russian) United Methodist Church was founded and registered in 1991 and gained re-registration with the Moscow justice department in December 1999. The congregation, which Kim said has some 180 members, built its own church in northern Moscow in 1995 with financial support from Methodists in South Korea. Services are held in Russian and Korean. The center was built with gifts from the Kwan Lim Methodist Church in Seoul for about $1 million.

However, since May 2002, a “group of business people" attempted to steal the building by changing the founding document to the center.

"They did not meet in the church, claimed to have changed all the leaders and had no connection with us, but even so, the justice department accepted the new founding document," said Svetlana Kim, one of the founders of the center. "No one from the justice department even checked up with us." The new "owners" then sold the building to others.”

Aleksandr Buksman, head of the local registration department for religious organizations, said the ownership documents were amended in compliance with the country’s religion law. He said the amendments to the document and approval of new leadership occurred at a church meeting in April 2002, but church officials said no valid meeting took place.

Maksim Zubov, an official of the federal Justice Ministry department dealing with religious organizations, said he was not familiar with the United Methodist case but promised that his office would follow up the issue with the Moscow city justice department.

"No one has the right to change the founding document of a religious organization without its knowledge," said Zubov.

Nonetheless, on Dec. 9, just three days after the prosecutor’s office dropped its investigation into the disputed transfer, guards loyal to the new "owners" seized the building. Therefore, the church members decided to lock themselves inside.

"We are staying here round the clock to try to prevent the illegal seizure," said Kim. "But we know they won’t pay any attention to us."

Kim reported that about 20 guards arrived on Dec. 9, breaking the lock and smashing a door to gain access. She said the police came but didn’t intervene.

Since the seizure, guards representing the new "owner" have the building under their control. Kim said the church was able to hold its Sunday service Dec. 14, but only because it persuaded the guards to allow in church members, some of whom remain in the building.

According to Kim, this is not the first time religious communities have faced such problems over ownership of buildings. The church’s attempt to challenge the justice department also proved fruitless.

"We lodged our appeal there in September 2002, and it still hasn’t been considered," Kim said.