Relations are growing worse between Moscow and the Vatican, which says the conversion into a brothel of an apartment rented out by an order of Franciscan monks is the latest in a campaign to discredit the church in Russia.
Moscow, 16 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The public fracas began last week when "Komsomolskaya pravda" newspaper ran a story under the headline "Moscow Monastery Is a Bordello."
The newspaper said two central Moscow apartments owned by the Order of Friars Minor Conventual were being used as a brothel, and suggested the order was behind the operation. The report was accompanied by photographs of a woman in nun's attire with bra and panties showing.
The order condemned the reports. The Franciscans say they, indeed, rented out the apartments after moving to other quarters. They say the apartments were registered under the name of the order's head, Father Grigorii Tserokh, and rented under the understanding that they would be used for charitable work.
Father Nikolai Dubinin, a spokesman for the Russian order, tells RFE/RL that the order was misled: "It turned out that [the occupants] created a very real bordello there. That's the extent of the truth. The press kept quiet about the next event, which is that over the past six months, Father Grigorii -- so far unsuccessfully -- has tried to remove the residents of that house of leisure from their apartment and re-establish his rights."
The order said Tserokh had appealed to the police for help, but that the tenants still refuse to budge.
Dubinin says the claims are not simply the mistake of one journalist: "In fact, besides that ['Komsomolskaya pravda'] article, which we immediately denied, there was also a television show on channel 1, 'Chelovek i zakon,' and 'Russkii dom' on Moskovie Television, where the Franciscan order was also essentially accused of turning into a brothel. We feel this is already not one journalist's mistake. As we stated in the protest prepared on the part of the order in Russia, we feel this is a provocation."
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a statement on 14 October condemning what he called a "despicable operation" to discredit the church.
Last month, Archbishop Tadeuz Kondrusiewicz, head of the Catholic Church in Russia, appealed to human rights groups to help combat what he called a "large-scale anti-Catholic campaign" in Russia.
Relations between the dominant Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Catholic Church -- which has a small following of an estimated 600,000 -- have deteriorated steadily since the Soviet collapse.
Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii II accuses the Vatican of trying to convert Orthodox believers. He has rebuffed overtures of rapprochement by Pope John Paul II, and was particularly angered by the pope's visit last year to the former Soviet state of Ukraine, which Russia considers traditionally Orthodox territory.
President Vladimir Putin has made some public attempts to mediate in the standoff, but the government seems to largely back the position of the church, which has grown in influence and wealth over the past decade.
That has helped disappoint John Paul's ambitious goal of reconciling the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which split in a schism in 1054. Russia has viewed the Vatican with suspicion for centuries, particularly for its influence with former Catholic rivals to the south and west in what is now Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
Five Catholic priests have been denied visas this year, effectively expelling them from Russian and drawing the Vatican's ire.
Kondrusiewicz has also complained of other forms of pressure, including vandalism, legal difficulties, and bans on construction of new churches.
Interfax reports that the Franciscan order says it is discussing the brothel matter with lawyers and may take the matter to court.