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Russia: Catholic Church Continues To Rile Orthodox Officials

Last week, Russian authorities denied entry visas to two Roman Catholic priests, the latest incident in an apparent crackdown on the Catholic Church in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly accused the Roman Catholic Church of aggressively proselytizing in Russia. But Catholics deny the charges and say that a vicious campaign is under way in Russia to fight the country's tiny Catholic minority.

Prague, 17 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, last week appealed to Russian and international human rights groups to take notice of what he calls a "large-scale anti-Catholic campaign [in Russia]."

His protest was sparked by a decision by Russian authorities to refuse entry visas to two Catholic priests, Edward Mackievicz and Jaroslaw Wisniewski, both of Poland. Russian Foreign Ministry officials offered no explanation for the denial. This latest incident brings to five the number of Catholic priests expelled from, or denied entry to, Russia this year.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the predominant church in Russia, supported the decision, saying authorities have the right to "expel foreigners without any explanation." The statement is not surprising, given that Orthodox Church officials have been outspoken critics of the Roman Catholic Church, which they accuse of actively proselytizing in what it considers Orthodox "ecumenical territory."

The Russian Orthodox Church, which has repeatedly refused to extend an invitation to Pope John Paul II to visit Russia, was angered by the Vatican's recent decision to upgrade four of its so-called apostolic administrations in Russia to full dioceses.

The Catholic Church, in return, insists it is not seeking converts, but simply trying to provide pastoral services to Russia's estimated 600,000 Catholics, a tiny minority in a country where roughly two-thirds of Russia's 144 million people consider themselves Russian Orthodox.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz dismissed allegations of aggressive proselytizing by the Catholic Church as ridiculous. "It is absurd. It is absolutely absurd. It's a different case if some people, who are not baptized [Catholics], are coming of their own will to our church, but there are small numbers of such people. It is an absolute absurdity. However, on the other hand, you cannot forget that people have the freedom to choose," Kondrusiewicz said.

Kondrusiewicz also said the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have a different understanding on the concept of proselytizing. He said the Catholic Church does not automatically consider all native-born Russians to be Russian Orthodox. "You can hardly call an atheist who was baptized in the Orthodox Church but [who] had no relations with any church during his life an Orthodox believer. If at some point in his life, this person chooses to become a Catholic, it can't be called an act of proselytizing [by the Catholic Church]," Kondrusiewicz said.

Aleksandr Abramov is an official with the external-affairs department of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. He disagrees with the Catholic point of view and says Russia was and is an Orthodox country and has its own traditions of Christianity. "We consider everyone who was baptized in an Orthodox way or has Orthodox roots to belong without any doubt to Orthodox tradition. And we consider these people to be in our fold and we are against such a development when our [believers] are being taken away from us, very often by indecent means," Abramov said.

Abramov admitted that the Islamic and Protestant faiths are also seeking new believers in Russia, but said the Orthodox Church is more alarmed by the activities of the Catholic Church, which, he said, "claims to be a sister of the Orthodox Church and at the same time is poaching from Orthodox territory."

Abramov, however, adamantly denied that the Orthodox Church was in any way involved in the decision to deny entry visas to the two Catholic priests.

Although a precise figure on Russian Catholics is unknown, Abramov said the number of Catholics has, if anything, seen only a slight increase over the past decade. So why is the Russian Orthodox Church so threatened by the activities of the Catholic Church?

Geraldine Fagan is a Moscow-based analyst with the Keston Institute, which monitors religious-freedom issues in postcommunist countries. She said there are some evident trends that may be reasonable cause for concern in the Orthodox Church. "Maybe in the largest cities you do get some cases -- I'm not talking hundreds -- of people who are attracted to Catholicism. You know, [there are some cases] among students and the intelligentsia, who might not have a particular history of being in [the] Catholic Church and do join the Catholic Church. Certainly that happens. It is rather hard to say. It rather depends on who you regard as being a Catholic. These numbers, with religion, are quite difficult to determine," Fagan said.

She said some Russians perceive the Catholic Church as more intellectual and civilized than the Orthodox Church. "[Catholicism] may appeal possibly to "new Russians," intelligentsia, who, [being] without any particular religious background, find the Russian Orthodox Church too impenetrable with its long services and old language," Fagan said.

Fagan said that, though the growth in the number of Russian Catholics is not dramatic, it is steady and gradual.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, who studied theology in Lithuania and worked for several years as a priest there, said it should not be forgotten that the majority of Russian Catholics are the descendants of people forcefully deported to Siberia over the past two centuries by Russian and Soviet authorities.

Therefore, he said, these new Catholics, descendants of people from Poland, Belarus, Germany, Lithuania, and Latvia, cannot even be considered Orthodox by origin.