RUSSIA: In Moscow, some Armenian Christians are More Equal than Others

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 29 January 2001

Greek Catholics are not the only Eastern-rite Catholics whose existence in Russia is a delicate issue for the Catholic Church (see separate KNS article). Catholic nun Sister Nune - who is from Georgia's Armenian minority - told Keston News Service in Moscow on 18 January that the worsening economic situation in Armenia has resulted in the formation of a community of Catholics of the Armenian rite in the Russian capital. It is neither listed in the official 2000 directory of the Catholic Church in Russia nor advertised at the church where it meets.

Since spring 2000, Sister Nune reported, the community has met within the Catholic Church of St Louis every Sunday for half an hour of prayer and song in the tradition of the Armenian rite. There is no facility for the full liturgy in the Armenian rite (which is the same as in the Armenian Apostolic Church except for the addition of a prayer for the pope). Sister Nune explained to Keston that this would require a different altar arrangement, curtains and other adjustments - as well as a priest. The community did not have an Armenian Catholic priest, she explained, primarily because there were very few, and although Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz had tried to obtain one `it isn't easy for various reasons'. As a result the Armenians took the sacraments with the Latin-rite Catholics: `They normally say confession in Armenian - the priests are very patient.'

Sister Nune stressed that, as in the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenian Catholic church buildings were of simple construction: `We want to express that it is our home, to feel at home.' She also said that the liturgy was dynamic and social, `not like a Latin-rite mass where you just stand up and sit down all the time.' Both these elements were clearly absent when Keston observed the Armenian Catholic community at worship on 21 January among the orderly pews of the sumptuous interior of St Louis. (A maximum of 40 women were participating while their menfolk conversed outside the church.) A full-length liturgy would in any case have been impossible, since there was barely time for the Armenians' worship session between Russian and Polish Latin-rite masses. As with the Greek Catholics, the Armenians are subordinate to the Latin-rite administration and are not registered as a parish. At the moment, said Sister Nune, `we are not talking about a parish, it is forming very slowly. Everyone is happy with the current situation - that they have been given the opportunity to pray for half an hour.'

This situation contrasts sharply with that of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Moscow. Two of the Church's three prerevolutionary church buildings in Moscow were destroyed under the Soviet regime - the third is a chapel within the Armenian cemetery. Last summer billboards in Moscow's metro carried public appeals for the construction of a second church. The appeal website carries a message from Patriarch Aleksi of the Russian Orthodox Church expressing the hope `that the Armenian diaspora will soon receive the opportunity to erect a new church in Moscow.' The church - on which construction has already begun – is planned to have an area of 885 square metres - or room for 1000 worshippers. When Keston visited the Armenian Apostolic liturgy at the cemetery chapel on 21 January, however, there was a maximum of 75 people in attendance, and although the chapel is not large, there was ample room.

Speaking to Keston on 25 January, Igor Vyzhanov, spokesman for Orthodox-Catholic relations at the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, appeared surprised to learn of the existence of Armenian Catholics in general. Asked how the Moscow Patriarchate would react if they wanted to build a church in Moscow, he replied that it would depend `whether there would be mission or if it were in response to real pastoral need.' In that case, asked Keston, why had the construction of a large Armenian Apostolic church been unequivocally welcomed? Because, Vyzhanov replied, `the Apostolic Church doesn't say that the pope has jurisdiction over the whole world.'

Echoing sentiments expressed to Keston from various Greek Catholics, Sister Nune gave another reason for the Moscow Patriarchate's disquiet at the presence in Russia of Catholics of the Eastern rite: `We demonstrate that it is not the case that Catholicism is something western.' (END)