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Russia: Tensions Worsen Between Orthodox, Catholic Churches

Earlier this month, Russian authorities barred two Catholic priests -- who worked in Russia and had valid visas -- from entering the country. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and some Russian politicians say they believe Catholic "expansionism" threatens Russia. The Vatican says Catholics are subject to discrimination in Russia and that the Orthodox Church does not want to treat all religions equally.

Prague, 25 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, Russian authorities barred Jerzy Mazur, the Catholic Bishop of Saint Joseph's diocese in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, from entering Russia. Mazur, a Pole, heads the Irkutsk diocese, the world's largest Catholic diocese. Mazur had earlier made several attempts to receive Russian citizenship but the requests were denied.

Earlier this month, Italian Stefano Caprio, pastor of two Catholic parishes in the Russian cities of Vladimir and Ivanovo, was also barred from re-entering the country.

In both cases, the clergymen said they possessed valid visas that were revoked by Russian border officials. No explanations were given.

Relations between the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches have never been good, but they worsened after Pope John Paul visited Kazakhstan and Ukraine last year and after the Vatican established four dioceses in Russia in February.

Two-thirds of Russia's 144 million people describe themselves as Orthodox and about 600,000 as Catholics. Many Russian Catholics are descendents of Poles, Lithuanians, and Germans who lived in the territory of the former Soviet Union and were exiled to Siberia. Eighty-five percent of Catholic priests in Russia are not Russian citizens.

Igor Kovalevski is general-secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Russia. He told RFE/RL that the Russian government overreacted to the founding of the Catholic dioceses:

"After four dioceses were established (in Russia), an anti-Catholic campaign began. I would dare to call it hysteria."

Kovalevski said some politicians and non-governmental organizations have violated Russian laws in their campaign against the Catholic Church. Kovalevski said there were several rallies that took place almost at the doors of Catholic churches. However, he said he hopes that a way out of this crisis will be found, as there are no grounds to justify talk about "Catholic expansion" in Russia.

Igor Vyzhanov is an official in the Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate. He dismisses the claim that anti-Catholic hysteria is under way in Russia. He told RFE/RL that he doesn't know why the two Catholic clergymen were prevented from entering Russia and that the Russian Orthodox Church had nothing to do with the matter:

"Recent events were caused by the actions of the Catholic Church itself. The Catholic Church maybe tried to act as defiantly toward the Russian state as it used to act toward the Orthodox Church." He said the arrogance of the Catholic Church sparked the anti-Catholic demonstrations. He said this arrogance is illustrated by the fact that the Catholic Church established the four dioceses in Russia without consulting the Russian Orthodox Church or Russian authorities. He said the Russian Orthodox Church is not going to do anything to help the Catholic Church in Russia find a way out of its current conflicts in Russia because the Catholic Church itself has created them.

Geraldine Fagan works in Moscow for the British-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom. She said there have been several more violations of Catholic rights in Russia recently:

"In Pskov, the local authorities halted the construction of the Catholic church after they received complaints about its construction from local Orthodox bishops."

She said that in Magadan, the local authorities are trying to close a Catholic parish. The authorities say the priest is a foreigner and does not have a residence permit. In Saratov, an Irish Catholic priest has been warned that his residence permit expires in May and that he will not be allowed to be a parish priest any longer.

Fagan says many problems exist because the Russian Orthodox Church considers Russia to be its "canonical territory" and believes that no other church has the right to form dioceses there. Neither the Catholic Church nor any other church, for that matter, accepts this principle.

Fagan says the Russian Orthodox Church also believes it has the right to approve visits to Russia by other religious figures and that it complained that Pope John Paul did not receive such permission before visiting Ukraine.

Tensions are growing. This Sunday, the People's Party of Russia plans to organize rallies in 30 Russian cities to protest the Catholic Church's activities in Russia. Gennady Raikov is the leader of the People's Party. He also leads a Duma faction called Narodny Deputat (People's Deputy). Raikov said earlier this week that Catholic expansionism threatens Russia's spiritual heritage.

Raikov's spokesman, Vladimir Kiriuchin, told RFE/RL that he believes the protests will be directed not so much against the Catholic Church but in support of the country's other main religions:

"We will rally in support of Russian statehood, the Orthodox Church, and in support of the main confessions in Russia -- namely Islam, Judaism and Buddhism."

Kiriuchin also said the main problem is the Vatican's decision to upgrade the apostolic administrations in Russia without consulting Russian authorities.

The Keston Institute's Fagan says it is not clear how the conflict between the two churches will end. She said Russian President Vladimir Putin could take steps to resolve the problem before it gets out of hand.