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Ukrainian Catholics protest as US firm turns church into casino

Roman Catholics in Ukraine have appealed for international support after a U.S.-owned company began converting a church into a casino.

"The authorities are laughing at us, thinking we can do nothing as they take the church to pieces under our eyes," said the Rev. Jan Sobilo, vicar-general of the Catholic church’s Kharkiv-Zaporizhia diocese. "We have to do something. This is our only church in a city of more than one million."

Builders began removing the ceiling and roof of St Joseph’s church at Dnipropetrovsk on 20 July at the request of a company named as California Dagsbury Inc., after evicting local parishioners, who had occupied the building in protest, and building a fence around the building.

In an interview with Ecumenical News International, Sobilo said Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, had requested an explanation from local government officials, while Catholics staged all-night prayer vigils on the street outside.

"I think this US firm hasn’t been kept properly informed by its local bosses and doesn’t realise this is a church," the vicar-general noted. "The city authorities know no one in the West would buy a church, so they’ve probably marketed it as just another ex-Soviet building."

After the 1991 collapse of Soviet rule, Catholic leaders requested the return of the 19th century St Joseph’s Church, on Dnipropetrovsk’s Karl Marx Prospect.

In July, Bishop Stanislaw Padewski of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia wrote to Pavlo Lazarenko, Ukraine’s former prime minister, to request his help in saving the church. Lazarenko is reported to own shares in Dagbserry Inc. and to have helped the company buy the church from a Panamanian company.

However, church sources said the bishop had received no reply to his letter when company guards removed local parishioners from the church overnight on 3 July and fenced off the building on 12 July.

Sobilo said local representatives of the company had failed to produce documents proving their ownership of the church, and added that three Catholic women had been "brutally beaten" during the eviction.

"The local prosecutors have defended the firm’s right to use the church as private property, and have deployed police to keep Catholics out and allow the casino to go ahead," the priest told ENI. "The only other places of worship we have here are a house belonging to the Capuchin order, and a small chapel with room for just 60. This explains why we’re desperate to keep this church."

The Latin-rite Catholic church, which has 870 parishes in Ukraine, many of whose members are of Polish descent, has lamented numerous rebuffs while attempting to regain properties seized during the Soviet era.

(c) Ecumenical News International