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Russia: Analysis From Washington--A Deeper East-West Divide

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Moscow Patriarchate's decision to cancel a planned meeting between Patriarch Aleksiy II and Pope John Paul II reflects a far deeper distrust between East and West than the ideological passions that divided Europe during the Cold War.

On Wednesday, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church released a brief statement saying that the two church leaders would not meet in Vienna as scheduled on June 21. Such a session would have been the first meeting between leaders of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths since Christendom divided into its Eastern and Western branches in 1054.

Beyond some generic language about the failure of preparatory discussions to resolve outstanding issues, the statement itself did not provide any specific explanation for why Russian church leadership had decided to pull out.

But in an "historical note" included in the document, the Synod indicated that the reasons were cultural and political rather than theological.

That note declared that the Russian Orthodox Church views the missionary activities of the Roman Catholics in Russia, "a country with a millenium-long Christian tradition, as politically motivated."

Many Orthodox Church leaders and even more ordinary Russians have complained about the influx of Western missionaries from various religious organizations since the fall of communism.

They have suggested that such visitors are especially unwelcome at a time when the Orthodox Church itself has the chance to actively proseletize for the first time since before the Bolshevik revolution.

At one level, the Synod's decision probably reflects very little more than Russian anger that the Vatican is apparently not prepared to promise not to continue its missionary work in Russia.

But at a deeper lever, three other but closely interrelated factors appear to be at work: First, many Russians view the Orthodox Church with its doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome is an integral part of what makes Russia not only a separate country but a distinctive civilization.

Consequently, they are reluctant to support any steps that might appear to undermine that very distinctiveness by implying a broader community of interests and values.

Second, even more Russians remember the special role that Pope John Paul II played in the downfall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet empire.

While the Pope made no dramatic statements about that during his recent trip to his native Poland, his visits to a place where his earlier words helped to challenge and ultimately defeat both Soviet occupation and the communist system served to remind many Russians of just what he and by extention the Roman Catholic Church did in 1989 and 1991.

And third, many Russians have a longstanding fear about the linkage between Poland and the Roman Catholic Church because of the role the two played in first conquering European Russia in the seventeenth century and then keeping Russia out of Europe after that time.

Those fears likely have been further stirred not only by the papal visit to Poland but also by the declarations this week from the United States and other NATO countries that Poland will be among the first of the former bloc countries to be included in the Western defense alliance.

All these feelings and concerns help to explain not only the cancellation of the Vienna meeting but also revisions in the draft Duma law on religion. As reported by the Keston News Service on Thursday, the new draft is "even more repressive" than the bill approved by the Duma Committee on Religious Affairs on June 6.

The draft simultaneously gives religious groups registered with the state greater rights than those without such registration and makes it harder for the latter to gain that privileged status. That alone will increase the status of the Russian Orthodox Church which has close ties with the Russian state at the expense of all other religious groups, including the Roman Catholics.

The end of communism and the collapse of the Soviet power may have eliminated one of the divisions in Europe, but the actions by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Duma committee this week show that another and much older division still survives.