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Mystery Surrounds Jesuit Priests' Killing In Moscow

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Russian Patriarch Aleksy II (left) gives his condolences to French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois in Moscow.

Russian Patriarch Aleksy II (left) gives his condolences to French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois in Moscow.

Did a Russian Catholic priest dine with a dead man -- a murdered colleague -- shortly before being killed himself? That, of course, is an absurd question. But it's what Russian investigators have suggested about the men's grisly murder in Moscow this week, if what the priests' Jesuit order says about the timing of their deaths is correct.

Two Jesuit priests, Victor Betancourt of Ecuador and Otto Messmer, a Russian who oversaw the Jesuits in Russia, were found bludgeoned to death in their Moscow flat on October 28. In a statement, the Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are known, said a priest concerned about the men's absence had found them at home and alerted the police.

Significantly, the Jesuits' statement said that Betancourt, 42, was killed on October 25 while the 47-year-old Messmer, who had been away in Germany, was killed upon returning to the flat two days later on October 27. When found the following day, Betancourt had been dead for some 72 hours, Messmer for some 24 hours.

Otto Messmer, courtesy of jesuit.cz
Yet in a written statement on October 29, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office does not state that the two priests might have died at different times. The statement only says "experts believe the deaths occurred more than one day previously."

It then adds, "The investigation is considering all possible versions of what could have happened, including a domestic crime, because the room bore signs of a party." Separately, in remarks to gazeta.ru, investigator Yury Sukharev said glasses and open bottles of wine and absinthe were found in the flat's kitchen. Another report in Interfax suggested, without naming its source, that sexual foul play may have had a role.

The statement by Russian investigators also said the victims apparently died of head injuries, and that the apartment's door was open. It was unclear whether any valuables were missing.

Rocky Relations

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II has expressed condolences to Catholics over the murders, as have Russian Muslims. The Vatican has asked for light to be shed on the killings, which Father Igor Kovalevsky, secretary-general of Russia's Catholic Bishops' Conference, has called "brutal" and "a grave sin."

While ties between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox appear to be improving under Pope Benedict XVI, Russian Orthodox officials still regularly accuse Catholics of seeking converts on their territory. Benedict, earlier this month, urged Catholic bishops in former Soviet republics not to aggressively seek converts.

Might the murdered priests have been involved in "aggressive" proselytism?

Maria Cioccoloni, a Jesuit spokeswoman in Rome, says that for seven years Betancourt handled pastoral relations with Russians who were possibly interested in joining the Society of Jesus. It's unclear what that entailed. "He was doing pastoral work with students and people in the parish, with young people," Cioccoloni says. Asked if those young people were already Catholics, she says, "[They] don't have to be [Catholics] -- they can also be from other religions."

Catholic-Orthodox relations have been rocky since the east-west division of Christianity in 1054. John Paul II, the late Polish pope, had sought to improve ties with the church of his country's giant neighbor, but Russian Orthodox officials never granted his lifelong wish to visit Russia.

In 2004, 300 religious leaders gathered in Russia to pray for strengthening religious tolerance. But tellingly, Catholics were not included among the invited "traditional" religions of Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

Catholics and other non-Orthodox Christian denominations in Russia have also been victims of past violence. A Slovak priest was killed in 2005 in Bryansk, apparently by robbers, while an American Episcopal priest was killed last August in Moscow. The motives were unclear. Non-Orthodox Christian leaders in Russia complain frequently that the authorities and police often act belatedly to their pleas for protection.

Both Betancourt, who also taught at a private Jesuit school in Moscow, and Messmer worked at the St. Louis Catholic Church near the Kremlin. An ethnic German, Messmer was Kazakh-born. His brother, Bishop Nikolaus Messmer, is the Catholic Church's highest official in Kyrgyzstan.

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