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Russia: Relations Deteriorate Further Between Orthodox, Catholic Churches

Relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican took a turn for the worse yesterday, when the Russian church called off a planned visit by a Catholic cardinal. The move followed the Vatican's announcement on 11 February that it is raising the status of its presence in Russia, further fueling Russian Orthodox anger at what it sees as Catholic proselytizing on traditionally Orthodox territory.

Prague, 14 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Cardinal Walter Kasper, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was meant to have visited Russia next week. Until, that is, the Vatican announced it is upgrading its presence in Russia, citing the need to improve pastoral care for the country's Catholics.

The 11 February announcement means that the Vatican's four apostolic administrations -- in Moscow, Novossibirsk, Saratov and Irkutsk -- are upgraded to full dioceses under one "ecclesiastical province" with a metropolitan see in Moscow.

The move did not go down well in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Orthodox officials say it confirms what they've been saying all along -- the Catholic Church wants to encroach on Orthodox territory and lure away its faithful.

Patriarch Aleksii II said the pope had "thrown down a challenge" to the Russian Orthodox Church. There was talk of cutting all contacts with the Vatican. Then yesterday, Metropolitan Kirill, who heads the church's external relations department, sent a letter canceling Cardinal Kasper's visit, saying it would no longer be possible.

Joseph Werth is the Catholic bishop of what is now the diocese of Western Siberia. Speaking on the phone from Novossibirsk, he said he wasn't surprised at how the Russian Orthodox Church reacted to the Vatican's move: "I can just say that there weren't any [serious] relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in the first place. It's just been a kind of children's game. So nothing much will change. There were no ties, and there will be no ties."

Werth said his diocese does carry out missionary work, but he denied charges his church is proselytizing with a view to converting Orthodox faithful. He said his church doesn't return the accusations, though it could.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, when there were no Catholic churches, people went and baptized their children in Orthodox churches, and they became Orthodox. There are many thousands of these people -- our people with Catholic roots -- who were baptized in Orthodox churches. But we never accuse the Orthodox Church of proselytizing because of this. I even remember 11 years ago, when I became bishop of Novossibirsk, I thanked the Russian Orthodox Church [because] when there were no Catholic churches, the Orthodox Church baptized them. I thanked them for that," Werth said.

Many people in Siberia are of Lithuanian, Polish or -- like Werth -- German origin. But relatively few now retain their Catholic heritage, he said.

"Here in Siberia alone, there are more than one million people of Catholic origin -- Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, mixed families. Out of this million there are maybe 100,000 who say they still have some Catholic faith. The others have lost it all already. And out of that 100,000, there are maybe only 10,000 or 20,000 who regularly attend our churches on Sunday. Even out of our Catholics, only one [to] five percent really come to our churches. That's the modest position of the Catholic Church," Werth said.

Britain's Keston Institute monitors religious freedom in postcommunist countries. Felix Corley is the editor of the Keston News Service. Corley notes that the war of words comes at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church is expanding into some traditionally Catholic countries -- as well as other distinctly non-Orthodox places, such as Vietnam and even Antarctica.

"It's interesting that the Russian Orthodox are making it clear that their parishes -- for example, the one in Ireland, in Dublin -- are going to serve English speakers, i.e. local people, not just the Russian or Eastern European expatriate community that there is in Dublin. So really, the Russian Orthodox are doing exactly what the Catholics are doing and catering to anyone who wished to attend. They're opening up shop, so to speak, and anyone can attend. It's exactly what the Catholics have been doing in Russia," Corley said.

The sharp exchange also comes just weeks after the Russian Orthodox Church sent a delegation to the pope's meeting of religious leaders in Assisi, Italy, which some observers took as a sign of slowly thawing relations.

But Corley played down the significance of the Assisi visit and said ties remain as chilly as ever -- as shown by this week's spat. He said the Orthodox world seems to be lining up into two camps -- one in favor of putting relations with the Vatican on a friendlier footing, and one against.

"The ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul, who has the position of primacy, he's more in favor of having good relations with the Vatican. But the Russian Orthodox Church is, by far, the largest Orthodox church in the world. It has more members than all the other Orthodox churches put together. So although it's not the most important or the most senior, it does have a powerful position in the Orthodox world," Corley said.

Corley said what he calls the "anti-Catholic mood in Moscow" may affect the relations of other Orthodox churches with the Vatican.