The Vatican recently redesignated its five temporary administrative divisions in Russia as dioceses, a more long-term arrangement. And last weekend, Pope John Paul II included Moscow's Roman Catholics in a six-city pan-European video address. From one perspective, for the leader of the world's Roman Catholics to serve his Russian flock in this way seems an innocent activity. But RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that the outraged reaction of Russia's Orthodox Church patriarchate was predictable.
Prague, 6 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II's message to Russian Roman Catholics in Moscow last weekend was routine enough.
In a video sermon also beamed to five other European cities, the pope said, "In the name of the most holy Virgin Mary, always stay close to each other in faith and serve the Gospel."
The Gospel, or "truth," to Christians refers to Holy Scriptures. Christians declare a belief that the Virgin Mary is the human mother of Jesus Christ, the son of God who was born miraculously to a virgin.
The faithful of the Russian Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox churches worship God in different ways with different liturgical customs, but share beliefs in Jesus, Mary, and God.
So a bystander might be tempted to wonder why Alexii II, patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia, appeared on Russian NTV after the pope's address and said, "We regard it as an invasion of Russia."
Moscow journalist Andrei Zolotov Jr., who covered the Roman Catholic gathering in Moscow's Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, says the pope's electronic visit to Moscow might not by itself have aroused such a strong reaction. Zolotov writes for the English-language daily "The Moscow Times."
"I think that the pope's virtual appearance in Moscow's [Roman Catholic] cathedral would not have been such an important event if it had not been timed soon after the elevation of the apostolic administrations to the rank of diocese."
And therein lies some tangled background to the story.
The Keston Institute is a London-based nongovernmental organization specializing in following religious developments around the world. Geraldine Fagan is a reporter for the Keston News Service. She describes the Roman Catholic organizational changes in Russia as hardly more than a name change.
"In general terms, basically what has happened is that the [Roman] Catholic Church has decided to rename its existing structures in Russia and call them diocese. So they have not changed in size and number and personnel. They are exactly the same as before."
Fagan says the Orthodox Church is reacting as though any attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to preach to any Russian who is baptized in the Orthodox Church constitutes proselytism. In general, churches make a distinction between evangelism -- that is, the benign spreading of the good word to people who may not have any religion -- and proselytism, or trying to win adherents of one religion over to another.
"And now, certainly within the most recent statements, the patriarch has described the whole Russian people as being spiritually and culturally and historically the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church. So he is really including even atheist Russians as being part of the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church."
Gillian Evans is a member of the history faculty at the University of Cambridge in England. She describes herself as an ecumenist, that is, a person who studies interchurch relations and cooperation. She says the patriarch's position may be more understandable if one considers the history of Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox relations.
"The fundamental principle of the organization of the church from a very early date has been territorial, hasn't it? In a given place, there was -- in the united church, in a given place -- there was a diocese and a bishop and bishops grouped together under metropolitans."
Evans says the significance may lie less in what the Vatican has done in Russia and more in the fact that it unilaterally has altered what long had been a settled arrangement, a delicate shift in the perceived balance of power.
"It sounds to me as though [the Roman Catholic action] is a bid for control or power that is ecclesiastically a stronger claim than was being made before. And that must be so because if it has people very angry locally, that must be how they are perceiving it, isn't it?"
The "Moscow Times'" Zolotov concurs: "As for the institution of dioceses united in a metropolia [or group of bishops] in a church province, this elevation of the status of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia has really been a major setback in the relations between the Orthodox Church and the Vatican, because the Orthodox Church saw it as the establishment of a parallel church."
Zolotov says the very symbolism of what could be taken as merely a name change is the essence of the controversy: "The problem is that by setting up a higher-status church, which had not been the case in Russia before, the Roman Catholic Church has shown that it is here for a long time. It is here to expand its presence."
The Roman Catholic Church regards the Eastern Orthodox churches as being members of the same communion, whose ministers trace their ordination to the first disciples of Christ and whose sacraments are valid for all Catholics. Zolotov says this led the Russian Orthodox leadership to expect the Roman Catholics would not feel a need to increase their influence in Russia.
"And that is precisely what irritates the Orthodox, who had expected -- and are now very much disillusioned in that -- that on the basis of the ecumenical progress that had been made in the 1960s and '70s, that the [Roman] Catholic Church would indeed treat the Orthodox Church as a sister church and would help it rather than expand [the Roman Catholic] presence."
The question remaining is why the Vatican chose to make its two provocative moves in Russia now. The Keston Institute's Fagan says the pope and his advisers may have calculated that the Russian government had signaled it probably would not rise strongly to the Orthodox Church's defense.
From Oxford, ecumenist Evans suggests that the ailing and aging pope may have felt an urgency to act because his time is growing short.