Eurovision Organizers Face Backlash Over Choice of Venue for 2017 Opening Ceremony

Efrem Lukatsky/AP/REX/Shutterstock 
St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine.

Last week, Ukraine said the opening ceremony of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest would be held in the Saint Sophia complex, a well-known religious landmark in the capital Kiev which dates back to the 17th century, and which is recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage Program.

Eurovision's organizers thought that since the complex's centerpiece cathedral is not currently in use as a church, holding the ceremony wouldn’t insult religious feelings. After reactions from church officials in Ukraine and Russia over the past week, they were very clearly mistaken.

"This should not be done... it would be blasphemy," Vasily Anisimov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy, was quoted as saying by the news agency RIA Novosti. "On that site, a huge burial ground is located."

"In Soviet times, the tombstones were removed to make room for lawns and paths, but Princes Yaroslav the Wise and Vladimir Monomakh, as well as renowned city residents and Kiev metropolitans, were buried there," he went on to say.

"From all viewpoints, this is a very bad decision," Andrei Kurayev, a prominent deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, related to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy, was quoted as saying by Mosokovski Komsomolets. "Now, on the tombstone of [Kiev's first patriarch Mstislav], there will be dances," he added.

Despite the outcry, Eurovision officials still do not see the problem.

"The St. Sophia Cathedral Complex was chosen as a venue for the opening ceremony because it has all the requirements necessary for an event such as this in terms of its location, capacity and logistical needs," a spokesman for the Eurovision Song Contest tells Billboard. The 2017 Eurovision Song Contest is to be held in Kiev on May 9, 11 and 13. Ukraine won the right to host the contest thanks to this year's victory of the country's entrant, singer Jamala.

Russia reacted bitterly to Jamala's victory as her song "1944," which centered on the deportation of Crimean Tartars by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1944 and which some saw as alluding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

And, since a number of Russian artists are blacklisted in Ukraine because of their support for the annexation, the selection of one of them as Russia's contestant next year is set to lead to more controversy.