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Sacred Ground: Muscovites Protest Church Construction In Park

  • Tom Balmforth

Local residents have been camping out in Moscow's Torfyanka Park to protest against the building of an Orthodox Church there. They say the project was implemented without any public consultation, thereby making it an illegal development.

Local residents have been camping out in Moscow's Torfyanka Park to protest against the building of an Orthodox Church there. They say the project was implemented without any public consultation, thereby making it an illegal development.

MOSCOW -- Clutching a parasol and with flasks of water by her side, 63-year-old pensioner Irina vows from behind dyed blond hair and pink lipstick not to budge from her plastic lawn chair where she has sat for over a week.

"We're going to stay until the very end!" she says of the sit-in that she and hundreds of her neighbors have been waging since June 18 to block the construction of a church in their local park.

They have laid siege to the proposed site, with some protesters even camping out in tents to stop builders from bringing construction equipment into Torfyanka Park, located in a northeastern district of Moscow.

As municipal authorities called a tentative halt to construction late on June 25, local residents appeared to have scored a temporary victory in the often surreal standoff.

Earlier that day, when OMON riot police moved in to dismantle the small encampment, scuffles had broken out between protesters and a nationalist Orthodox group defending the site, with a portable toilet becoming central to the struggle.

Contested Ground

The project is part of an ambitious Russian Orthodox Church campaign, announced in 2010, to erect 200 new churches in the Russian capital as Patriarch Kirill capitalizes on the church's growing sway under President Vladimir Putin.

But grassroots opposition has sprung up in Irina's neighborhood, where locals call plans to build a church in Torfyanka Park "illegal."

"All we want is that they follow the law, which they've broken in a huge number of ways," Irina says as she takes a swig of water on her perch next to a homemade placard that reads, "We're not against churches, we're against churches in parks!"

Residents say they were not informed of plans for the church, nor were they allowed to participate in public hearings on its construction. They claim that makes the approval illegal. An online petition calling on Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to nix the construction has been signed by 1,200 residents.

There are signs the authorities might be forced to cave in. The head of the Moscow prefecture said in a June 25 statement that construction has been halted pending a court hearing, affirming that "equipment is being removed, builders are leaving. Tents and marquees from both sides will be taken away."

The sit-in protest began on June 18 after construction workers removed a fence to allow them to drive equipment to the proposed building site. The locals quickly obstructed the gap in the fence with a makeshift small encampment, including rugs, a communist flag, and the plastic chairs that Irina and her fellow protesters manned for a week before the OMON arrived.

Police at the scene declined to comment, but eyewitnesses said three of the resident protesters were detained and the tents pulled down.

"There's one word for this: violence," says Anton Ovseenko, an activist with the Yabloko party, which has supported the protest alongside the Communist Party. Ovseenko says fellow activist Sergei Mitrokhin was told by a senior Moscow city official that tent encampments -- used so effectively in neighboring Ukraine in 2004's Orange Revolution and again in 2014 by Maidan activists to overthrow pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych -- are a banned form of protest in Moscow.

Nasty Battle

In the hours before the police operation, a three-day saga involving the portable toilet had come to an end. Workers at the construction site, guarded by a nationalist Orthodox group, had asked protesters on June 22 if they would allow them to drive into the park with a replacement chemical toilet. The sit-in protesters refused.

Three days later, amid rain showers early on June 25 when few residents were present, workers tried to deliver the toilet by driving in from a different direction.

"We ran over to meet them, we still didn't let them through," Irina says, taking a small victory from the fact that the workers eventually had to carry the chemical toilet in by hand.

Shortly after that confrontation, protesters say, a priest in full garb arrived at the scene and leaned in menacingly toward a female protester, rasping: "We've stopped building."

Irina says that since her neighborhood saga began, she has received calls of support from other grassroots movements similarly opposed to specific church-construction projects.

"We've had calls from a group that didn't manage to hold out," she says. "We've even been called from St. Petersburg, where they have the same thing going on in Malinovka Park. It's the exactly same situation."

Of the hundreds of local residents gathered in Torfyanka Park to protest the church plans on June 25, Moscow police detained more than 20.

Despite the halt in construction activities, opponents of the church plans coordinating on the VKontakte social network say they remain wary. "We're not going anywhere; the picnic continues, the authorities are trying to confuse and hush up the scandal."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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