A year ago, on the night of September 26, 2022, in one of the symbols of modern Minsk, the church of St. Simon and Elena (Red Church) – a fire broke out for an unknown reason, which served as a formal reason to close the sanctuary for believers.
As a result of the fire, property on an area of about 20 square meters was damaged. m, people were not hurt. The authorities forbade the use of the building until the fire-damaged communications are restored and “the results of instrumental research of building structures are obtained.”
On October 6 of the same year, the Minsk authorities canceled the contract of free use of the church building with the parish. On October 14, it became known that the community is forbidden to hold religious services in the rectory (priest’s house), and on November 9 – in separate premises and the church yard.
In mid-February 2023, believers and priests managed to inspect the Red Church from the inside. Later, representatives of the church committee stated that “traces of fire, soot and other visible damage” were not found in the worship hall.
On September 24, the church committee reported on the parish website that since last autumn, together with the faithful, he had appealed “to various state institutions with a request to open the sanctuary for prayer and worship of the Lord as soon as possible”, but a “comprehensive, positive” answer was never received.
“The temple is closed, there is no water or light in the rectory. We sincerely thank everyone who supports the existence of our parish,” the message reads.
What happens to the Red Church a year after the fire
As a Catholic woman from Minsk told Svaboda Alexander* (name changed for the safety of the interlocutor. — RS), almost all the doors to the church still remain sealed. One door opens. Through them, employees of “Minsk Heritage” enter the building to be on duty in the church. They are known to take care of the flowers in the gallery.
It is not known whether any work is being done in the church. Whether the consequences of the fire have been removed is also unknown. In March, it was reported that the temple had been investigated and determined that it needed to be restored. They were looking for a project organization. Alexandra said that she saw specialists coming to the church recently and discussing the replacement of lamps.
The sealed door of the Red Church
74-year-old priest Vladyslav Zavalnyuk did not change his status, he remains the abbot of the parish in honor of Saints Simon and Elena. As far as believers know, the church hierarchs offered him to transfer to the service in Budslav or Rakov. However, he did not agree, because he does not want to leave the parish in a difficult time.
“There are rumors that if Zavalniuk left, they would open (the Red Church. — RS). How can you agree to this and play this game?” – thinks the interlocutor.
As “Christian Vision” previously reported, the authorities also made financial demands on the Red Church. They demanded to pay the bill of “Minsk Heritage” for “depreciation of the church and land use taxes”. The quota of the amount is unknown, but in the summer of 2020, the debt of the Catholic community to the company amounted to 156 thousand rubles. She had to pay another 13,000 monthly.
Earlier, the church authorities appointed the parish administrator – priest Yuriy Sanko. He is responsible for repairs and construction works in the sanctuary, as well as for negotiations with the state authorities.
Father Vladislaus and other priests of the parish are now praying in the arch-cathedral church on Svoboda Square. Masses for parishioners of the Red Church were added to the schedule of services: on weekdays at 3 p.m. and on Sundays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. On Sunday, a full church gathers for these services, says Alexandra. Some believers moved to other churches, many went abroad.
One of the assistant priests of the Red Church was beaten by security forces during a search of the cathedral. He left for Poland, says Alexandra.
The choir of the Red Church continues to sing at services. Religious groups from the Red Church gather for their prayer meetings also in the cathedral.
Father Zavalnyuk spends a lot of time in the rectory near the Red Church, sometimes staying overnight. They turned off the light and water there. They also wanted to take the building itself from the parish. Now there are religious classes for children.
“It is impossible to live in a rectory, and twice as many children were prepared for first communion as in the cathedral,” says the interlocutor.
The abbot usually walks around the temple during the day and prays for 1-2 hours. Lay people also come to pray at the shrine. But no one gathers in large groups anymore, because immediately after the fire, a group of believers near the Red Church was dispersed by the police and threatened with arrest.
The parish priest never got a job as a janitor in his parish. He no longer cleans the area near the temple (photographs appeared in winter of the priest cleaning the snow near the temple).
Vladyslav Zavalnyuk cleans the snow
“It was an irony: if you don’t allow it, then at least accept the janitor. Then no one cleaned the snow. Earlier, the parish priest was looking for someone to remove the snow. No one accepted him as a janitor. It was to embarrass people, to make people think,” explains Alexandra.
Immediately after the fire, equipment and computers were taken from the church, but then returned. Father Zavalnyuk kept religious books that he wrote and published in his computer.
Representatives of the Red Church were allowed into the sanctuary several times to collect some of their belongings. Almost everything was left in place. They took out theatrical items, a guitar, sheet music for the choir, icons from the exhibition that was held in the sanctuary at that time.
“The nuncio said that things should be taken out of the church. The believers themselves resisted, saying that they would not bear it. The church authorities went in line with the state authorities,” the interlocutor sums up.
Before the anniversary of the fire, believers wrote an appeal to Alexander Lukashenko with a proposal to open the Red Church for believers, explained how important it is for people, and asked for a meeting with officials. However, the administration sent a letter that such a meeting was impractical.
Since last December, the community of the parish of St. Simon and Elena is temporarily assigned to the archcathedral church of the Most Holy Virgin Mary.
The Red Church has the status of historical and cultural value of Belarus and officially belongs to the state. In 2013, it was transferred to the ownership of Minsk.
Walking around the Red Church. Minsk, August 2020
A few years ago, the Minsk city authorities announced that the parish had accumulated substantial debt in land tax, real estate tax and depreciation. According to unofficial information, after the fire, the parish was forced to repay the debt as one of the conditions for resuming the operation of the church.
Catholicism is the second largest Christian denomination in Belarus. There are about 1.5 million Catholics in Belarus.
After the presidential elections of 2020, relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus became complicated due to the fact that many hierarchs and believers openly spoke out against the wave of violence and repression that followed the mass protests.
According to the monitoring of the “Christian Vision” initiative, from 2020 to mid-August 2023, at least 60 church servants, including 22 Roman Catholics, suffered some form of repression. Individuals were forced to leave Belarus.
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