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Moscow congregation fights for its building

12/18/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Felix Corley Forum 18 News Service*

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Bishop Ruediger R. Minor
A Korean United Methodist church in Moscow fears it may lose its church building after the city's justice department allowed outsiders to change the building's ownership documents.

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. The pastor and some 30 church officials and members remained holed up inside as of Dec. 18.

"We are staying here round the clock to try to prevent the illegal seizure," church administrator Svetlana Kim told Forum 18 News Service from inside the church. "But we know they won't pay any attention to us."

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 United Methodist Church in Russia is registered with the federal government as a centralized religious organization. It is led by Bishop Ruediger Minor.

In an e-mail message to United Methodist News Service, he said a "group of business people" was attempting to steal the building.

"This is a problem that deeply disturbs the Methodist community in Moscow," Minor told Forum 18. "Though it seems to be one of the 'usual' business quarrels, it has some religious undertones. Propaganda against 'this Korean sect' and other invectives are used. And, in my judgment, the whole thing could only happen because of some (at least silent) support from administrative and other structures."

The Kwan Lim church center was built with gifts from the Kwan Lim Methodist Church in Seoul for about $1 million, Minor wrote in his e-mail. "It is really the 'gem' of all Methodist property in Moscow."

A Christian law firm is helping the church defend its rights, he said.

"In our opinion, there are grave violations of legislation and procedure by the Moscow city legal department, as they recognized the 'legal documents' of the new 'owners,' Minor wrote. "Furthermore, Moscow bureaucracy, well known for its slow motion and endlessly twisted paths, did work in record speed in this case. This raises indeed very serious doubts and questions."

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.

Kim, who signed the original founding document, said problems began when the church belatedly discovered that another group unconnected with the congregation managed to change the founding document after holding a meeting in April or May 2002.

"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," she said. "No one from the justice department even checked up with us." The new "owners" then sold the building to others.

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," he said.

Kim said this is not the first time religious communities have faced such problems over ownership of buildings, though the problem is more acute in the business world.

The church's attempt to challenge the Moscow justice department's recognition of the new founding document in district court got nowhere. "We lodged our appeal there in September 2002, and it still hasn't been considered," Kim said.

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.
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*United Methodist News Service contributed to this report. F18 News is operated by Forum 18, an Oslo, Norway,-based organization dedicated to promoting implementation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dealing with issues of religious freedom. More information is available at

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