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Russia: Catholic Minority Faces Hostility, Misunderstanding

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Preparations are continuing in Ukraine for the country's first-ever papal visit, which begins this weekend. Pope John Paul's historic visit has sparked heated criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church, which says the pontiff will use his time in Ukraine to convert the country's worshippers from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. In neighboring Russia, the country's tiny Catholic minority is facing antagonism of its own. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 20 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul begins his historic five-day visit to Ukraine this weekend (23-27 June). The visit, which has been condemned by the Russian Orthodox Church, has underscored the antagonism that has existed between Catholics and Orthodox Christians since the churches' historic split in the 11th century.

Ukraine's Catholics -- the majority of whom are Greek Catholic -- make up some 10 percent of the country's religious believers and are concentrated in western Ukraine. Russia's Catholics, by contrast, comprise only a tiny fraction of that country's worshippers.

The Catholic Church has said there are half a million Catholics in Russia. But this number is based on estimates that include a number of traditionally Catholic nationalities -- like Lithuanians, Poles, and Germans -- who once lived in Russia. Religious experts say that official Soviet atheism and the return of many non-Russians to their native countries may mean the number of Catholics in Russia is actually much lower.

Officially, there are only about 220 Catholic parishes in Russia, half of which operate without a church. There are an additional 300 unregistered Catholic communities that are usually visited by a priest only a few times a year.

Many Russian Catholics say they face growing hostility from Russian Orthodox leaders, who have accused them of attempting to "steal" Orthodox believers and convert them to Catholicism.

The same accusation has been leveled at Ukraine's Catholics, and the upcoming papal visit has brought the issue to a head. Earlier this month, Patriarch Alexii II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said he would not meet with Pope John Paul. He cited as one of his major reasons the ongoing feud between the two churches in Ukraine.

Speaking at a news conference, the patriarch said, "We shouldn't meet while there's a war going on between Orthodox and Greek Catholics." He also accused the Vatican of attempting to convert Orthodox Christians by "buying their souls."

Deacon Andrei Kurayev is an Orthodox theologian in Moscow. He says Patriarch Alexeii will not meet with John Paul until the Pope condemns what Kurayev calls the "destruction of Orthodox churches by Uniates" (Greek Catholics) -- a reference to Ukrainian Catholics' reclaiming of churches seized by the Orthodox Church after Stalin banned Catholicism in 1944.

The Catholic Church was re-legalized in Ukraine in 1989, but the Russian Orthodox Church's reluctance to return churches to Catholic parishes has kept tensions simmering between the two groups ever since. Kurayev says that, unless the pope apologizes for what the patriarch calls the wrongful seizure of Russian Orthodox churches, a meeting between the two religious leaders would only lead to what he calls the shedding "of the blood and tears of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine."

Kurayev says Catholicism's dwindling popularity in the West has driven religious proselytizers eastward in search of new converts. He cites the growing number of seminaries in Belarus and Ukraine, saying they are being used to prepare future priests for vocations in Europe.

But Russian Catholics -- including Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusewicz, Russia's highest Catholic authority -- argue that they have always been a minority in Russia, and that the Church does not convert by force.

One of Russia's youngest Catholic communities is in Kirov, some 800 kilometers east of Moscow. It was registered just two years ago by Stanislav Shaforostov, a local businessman. He laughs when asked about the Russian Orthodox Church's fear that Catholic proselytizers will steal its worshippers. His church has only 10 regular members -- all what he calls "ethnic Catholics." Shaforostov himself was secretly baptized by his Belarusian grandmother 20 years after her husband was sent to a prison camp for sheltering a Catholic priest during Stalin's purges in 1937.

Despite his church's small size, Shaforostov says local hostility is obvious, and extends to state and nonreligious organizations. He complains that local authorities have refused to let his group hold services in the town's traditional Catholic church, which was recently reopened as a concert hall:

"The [Catholic church] was rebuilt this year, and it was decided that an organ would be put there. We [are trying] to negotiate to hold some events there, to be allowed to [hold services] there once a week, or once a month -- or even once a year, for Easter or Christmas. But all of our attempts have been cut off by the [regional] administration. They won't even speak to us. Archbishop [Kondrusewicz] wrote the governor, and we, the parish, also signed an appeal. But there has been nothing, no answer."

Sergei Nikolenko is a Catholic theology professor in Moscow. He says the hostility facing regional Catholic communities like Shaforostov's comes closer to xenophobia than true religious opposition:

"It's different in the provinces, where human rights is something they've heard about only on TV, where Bolshevism, anti-Semitism, and chauvinism are in the air and sink into everyday life. In such places, Catholics survive only in very isolated groups and, as a rule, group themselves according to national origin. That's the only way they can defend themselves."

Nikolenko says that in large cities, where the population is traditionally better educated, hostility toward Catholicism is less pronounced, even among those Russians who consider themselves "ethnically Orthodox." A former Orthodox Christian who converted to Catholicism during the Soviet regime, Nikolenko describes how Russian Catholics are usually perceived:

"People see it as a kind of unexplainable eccentricity -- why should a Russian be Catholic? I'd say [being Catholic] is associated with the idea that you are oriented toward a Western way of life. And people are [either] envious or respectful of that."

Elena Makeyeva is the spokeswoman for the Russian branch of the Caritas Catholic charity organization, which has spent 10 years in Russia providing aid and legal support for homeless and local orphanages. Makeyeva, who describes herself as a firm Orthodox believer, says that being wary of Catholicism is somehow "inherent to Orthodoxy." At first, she says, working for Caritas was like "traveling to a foreign country":

"When I first came [to Caritas], I was very closed to it. I said to myself that I would just work here, and that's all. I was biased. I had a hard time relating to Catholics. I had the impression they were completely different people whom I just couldn't understand and who were somehow hostile toward us, the Orthodox Christians. But now I see that we have more in common than we have dividing us."

In some ways, the two religions are growing even more similar, with Russian Catholics borrowing traditions from their Orthodox neighbors. In an interview last year with the Paris-based Russian newspaper "Russkaya Mysl," Archbishop Kondrusewicz said Catholic rites had begun to adapt to the "Russian mindset," adding Orthodox-style processions and icons to their services. He added that on Epiphany, celebrated 6 January, Russian Catholics receive holy water from their priest. The tradition, which has been almost entirely abandoned by European Catholics, is standard among Russian Orthodox Christians.