Roman Zuiev has been one of the most active LGBT activist in Ukraine for the past few years. He is now in a refugee camp in the middle of the Netherlands. He traveled to Amsterdam on 15th May to attend a Forum of LGBT Christian Groups. On 21st May, he officially asked for political asylum, on grounds of political persecution. “They took my passport, canceled my visa, gave me a document, which certifies my identity”, he explained over the phone on 29th May. “I have now been transferred to a camp in the center of Holland, and I wait here. The strangest thing is that, up until now, no one asked me for the reasons of my asylum request! I have to wait a few weeks for explaining myself at an interview”.
Until recently, Roman Zuiev was a bit of a peculiar taxi driver in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. He has been defending the rights of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals (LGBT) for many years. Back in October 2010, he was the first one in Ukraine to win a case in court over an homophobic aggression. Raised up as a Christian, first as a Jehovah witness and then as a Mormon, he has been trying to reconcile faith and sexual orientation. In February 2011, he founded his own “inclusive” Church of St Cornelius the Centurion, which came to gather about 40 believers.
The move irritated many. Yet Roman Zuiev had relied on intensive media coverage as a way to gain acknowledgment and protection. Despite some intimidation by religious representatives and a total lack of support by local authorities, the situation seemed precarious indeed yet manageable. When I met with him, back in October 2011 in Donetsk, I was sure he was safe enough.
In April, religious dignitaries held a meeting at the Patriarchate of Pechersk Lavra, in Kyiv. “They discussed ways to counter activities of LGBT Christians in Ukraine and to terminate the Church of St Cornelius. They came out with a very furious resolution against us” recalls Roman Zuiev. The General Prosecutor of Ukraine, Viktor Pshonka, received a letter from religious officials asking for canceling the registration of the Church. « St Cornelius had been registered as a civil organization as it could not be recognized as a religious association. But even that was too much for the Orthodox church”. The office of the General Prosecutor passed the letter to the Ministry of Justice, which apparently upped the pressure on the Church. Roman Zuiev talks about a series of unannounced controls in April, which he denounces as intimidating and illegitimate raids.
Things became hazardous as well when the priest went to claim for some 11,000 UAH he was supposed to receive from police officer Serguei Markov, his opponent in the 2010 case. According to Roman Zuiev, he went to the police station to meet with Serguei Markov and ask for his money. He was then bullied by his colleagues and left the place empty-handed. “Markov’s brother also works as a policeman, in a city that is some 50 kilometers away from my place in Makiivka [a suburban district of Donetsk]. He asked me over the phone to come in to his office, without any sound reason. I refused. Later on, he drove all the way with some of his colleagues, unannounced, to Makiivka, to look for me. Fortunately I was not at home at that time so they did not find me and I kept a low profile for a few days. They had absolutely no reason to act that way, I believe that was connected to this money issue”.
And so that was too much. Roman Zuiev seized the occasion of a trip to the Netherlands to ask for political asylum. Most likely, he is not coming back to Ukraine any time soon. Nor will he receive the 11,000 UAH he is legally entitled to. And the LGBT community in Ukraine has lost one of his most prominent activist. What about the Church of St Cornelius? From his refugee camp, he wishes to be able to keep caring about it despite the distance. “When I will have my situation legalized, I will be looking for inclusive Churches here in the Netherlands. Maybe I could start a Dutch branch of St Cornelius and support the Ukrainian community from here”.