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Hindus Fear Loss Of Only Temple

by Conor Humphries, Moscow Times

Posted January 21, 2006

Tuesday, January 17, 2006
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The fate of a patch of land behind a supermarket in northern Moscow is raising the wrath of Hindus around the globe, following City Hall's withdrawal of permission for the city's Krishna community to build a temple on the site.

On Wednesday, the Defend Russian Hindus campaign is to be launched by 10 member of Britain's House of Commons in reaction to the Moscow city government's decision to tear up an agreement to allow the Krishna community to build on the land, leaving the capital's estimated 10,000 Hare Krishnas and at least 5,000 Indians of other Hindu denominations without a permanent place of worship.

The campaign is to include an attempt to pass a nonbinding resolution in Britain's Parliament condemning the move and possibly a delegation of parliamentarians to visit Moscow to protest religious discrimination in general, said Ramesh Kallidai, secretary general of the Hindu Forum of Britain, which is running the campaign.

The temple saga began in 2004 with the demolition of city's only Krishna temple, which was located on Begovaya Ulitsa. As compensation, City Hall offered a piece of land the size of a football field at the edge of Khodynskoye Pole, an airfield off Leningradsky Prospekt near the Aeroport metro station.

The developer building on the old temple site quickly built a prefabricated structure on the new site to hasten the move of the congregation -- and one small hall in the corrugated iron structure has acted as the city's only Hindu temple ever since. The congregation will be evicted from this structure if the decision of the Moscow government is enforced.

The dispute, which has attracted the attention of national newspapers in Britain and India, has led the Indian government to appeal directly to the Moscow authorities, the Hindustan Times reported. But there are few signs a resolution will be found any time soon.

"The temple is the only place of worship for Hindus in Moscow. When this is taken away, they can't practice their religion as they should," said Kallidai, whose organization unites hundreds of Hindu organizations in Britain. The temporary temple is used by members of the Indian community for religious ceremonies, including weddings.

He described as "complete humbug" the suggestion from some quarters of the Russian Orthodox community that the Krishna movement did not represent traditional Hinduism.

"All of the Hindu temples in the United Kingdom accept the Hare Krishna movement as one of the leading bona fide Hindu traditions in the country," he said.

Compounding Hindu anger, an incendiary letter from Archbishop Nikon of Ufa and Sterlitamak to Mayor Yury Luzhkov in late November protesting the plan to build a temple caused outrage among Hindus around the world.

Describing the Hindu god Krishna as an "evil demon, the personified power of hell opposing God," the letter asked the mayor to ban the construction of the temple, describing it as a "Satanic obscenity" and a "citadel of idolatry."

While Nikon's is not the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, the church hierarchy has failed to offer a unified alternative position.

"There is large disagreement within the church about plans by other religions to build churches, such as that on Leningradsky Prospekt," said Father Mikhail Dudko, the head of the press service of the Moscow Patriarchate.

"One opinion is that of Nikon, that everything has to be done to prevent the building of such churches. The other is that other religions have the right to build their churches under certain conditions," including respect for the historical, cultural and architectural context, he said.

In early 2004, the release of plans to build a large temple on the site using traditional Indian architecture sparked off a storm of protest, with demonstrations by Orthodox groups that threatened to lie in front of the bulldozers to prevent its construction.

"Many in the church are not against the church itself, but against the building of a temple on the scale of Christ the Savior Cathedral, as was announced initially by the Krishna community," said Dudko, who suggested any building should be relative to the size of the Krishna community.

According to Maxim Osipov, a spokesman for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness in Moscow, the initial plan was for a temple just under half the height of Christ the Savior Cathedral, with a relatively modest floor size considering the 7,000 followers the group attracts on some holidays.

But the large scale of the initial proposal has been cited as proof of the Krishna community's plans to recruit large numbers of new worshipers. The Krishna movement "has a missionary aim to work with Russian youngsters," said Father Andrei Kurayev, a professor at Moscow's Spiritual Academy. "This aspect, of course, upsets the Russian church."

"We have the feeling that it is a kind of McDonald's, a type of Karma-Cola. It is not an authentic Hindu spirituality," said Kurayev.

He said he would support a different, smaller design in another part of the city -- citing the deaths of thousands of Russians on the field during celebrations marking the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896 as a reason for choosing a different location.

Although not one of the country's four traditional religions, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness was granted official status as a religion in Russia in 1988.

In response to a request from the Moscow authorities, the Krishna community downgraded its plans, said Osipov. Pictures on the fence of the site show the evolution of the project from an exotic temple with Hindu turrets, to something resembling a multistory car park.

"We just wanted something more beautiful than [our current] shed," he said. Their latest design is somewhere in between, a blue and white building, half the size of the original, with elements of both Moscow and Hindu architecture. It has been approved by Moscow's architectural council, Osipov said.

But as the Krishna community prepared to begin work, on Oct. 7, the City Prosecutor's Office suddenly announced that inconsistencies between the City Hall resolution to provide the land and the then-valid version of the Land Code had rendered it void. The city administration agreed, and it overturned the resolution that had given the land to the Krishna movement.

Osipov suggested that the City Duma elections in December might have played a part in the reversal from City Hall, while a major development on Khodynskoye Pole is set to give the area a much higher profile, likely raising the value of the land.

City Hall is currently looking for a new site to house the temple, but it is not clear when it will be found, how big it will be or where it will be located, said Konstantin Blazenov, vice chairman of the city government's committee for relations with religious organizations. He said that he hoped it would be found before the Krishna society was forced to leave its current premises, but he offered no guarantees.

In the meantime, the Krishna community has filed a case with the Arbitration Court -- a move that it hopes will revive the original resolution, or at the very least let it keep its temporary temple for a few more months.

Osipov said the site should officially be vacated within three months of the cancellation of City Hall's resolution, which would have given the congregation until the end of January to leave.

"It was our last resort -- we wanted to solve this problem peacefully," said Osipov.

What the Hindu community will do if the temporary temple is closed down is not yet clear.

"If we lose this place, we'll be out on the street," Osipov said.

"We will have to meet in people's apartments," he said. "Like in Soviet times."