RUSSIA: Varied State Response to Orthodox-Catholic Rift.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 22 February 2002

Over the past ten days different representatives of the Russian state have adopted varied positions in response to the Catholic Church's decision to upgrade its four existing ecclesiastical structures in Russia into dioceses (see KNS 12 February 2002).

On 12 February the Press and Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement in which it claimed "not to doubt the right of the Catholic Church to organise itself in accordance with canonical norms." However, the statement went on, when informed about the Vatican's decision "through diplomatic channels" on 4 February, the ministry "recommended that the Holy See refrain from re-organising its apostolic administrations into dioceses at the present moment and settle the matter with the Russian Orthodox Church." The motivation for this recommendation, the statement alleges, is that the issue "primarily concerns interchurch relations and could become the cause of their serious complication."

On 19 February Stepan Medvedko, adviser to the Committee for Religious and Social Organisations of the lower house of parliament, the Duma, confirmed to Keston News Service that on 15 February the Duma passed a motion instructing his Committee to request information from the foreign ministry on "violations of freedom of religion" committed by the Catholic Church in the former Soviet Union and to review "the situation which has arisen in connection with the active proselytism of the Catholic Church in traditionally Orthodox areas." The motion, according to Medvedko, was passed with a clear majority of approximately two-thirds. Proposing the motion, according to RIA Novosti, Duma vice-chairman Vladimir Zhirinovsky additionally called on the foreign ministry "not to give visas to representatives of the Vatican in connection with the heightened circumstances and their wilful actions in changing the status of Catholic dioceses."

On 18 February Aleksandr Dugin, adviser to the Duma on geopolitical issues, reportedly alleged that the Vatican's decision to form fully-fledged dioceses in Russia was made under pressure from Washington. Since the move constituted "a colossal anti-Orthodox and therefore anti-Russian step," explained Dugin, it would upset the recent rapprochement between Russia and Europe and hence prevent the formation of "a new political bloc in which America's role would be weakened."

Speaking at a press conference held in RIA Novosti on 15 February, the head of the Catholic Church in Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, characterised the Russian foreign ministry's 12 February statement as "incomprehensible" and "late". Speaking to Keston, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said that the ministry's reaction when the papal nuncio to Russia, Archbishop Giorgio Zur, informed them of the Catholic Church's plans on 4 February was "fine" ("normal'no") and "completely different" from the 12 February statement.

On 19 February Vladimir Ashurkov, an official at the Press and Information Department of the foreign ministry, said that he was unable to add anything to the 12 February statement. "We issued what we considered was expedient," he told Keston. While aware of the 15 February Duma motion, Ashurkov declined to make any comment regarding it. On 13 February NTV news agency reported another foreign ministry official, Yevgeni Voronin, as maintaining that the statement "simply set out the ministry's position regarding the question of dioceses, since the Vatican is not only the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but constitutes a state with which Russia has normal diplomatic relations." (Relations between Russia and the Vatican are in fact only at the level of "working contacts", not full diplomatic relations.)

Referring to the 12 February statement on the 14 February edition of the staunchly patriotic television programme "Russky Dom", presenter Aleksandr Krutov maintained that, by stipulating that the dioceses issue was interconfessional, the ministry was alleging that the Vatican had not violated Russian law, "but the Vatican state has set up its structures on our territory, it is both ridiculous and sad to hear state officials using such language."

Interviewed on a further, 17 February edition of the programme, the Russian Orthodox Church's Metropolitan Sergi of Solnechnogorsk spoke of his hope that "every believer will make a constructive contribution towards the task of non-acceptance of Catholicism". In this task, he continued, "a very large - foundation - stone" should be formed by the position of the state. Krutov responded that in this regard the foreign ministry had "initially hesitated: with varied and incomprehensible statements," and called upon the state to take a stand against the "spiritual expansion of Catholicism" in the interests of self-preservation. The Metropolitan was in full agreement: "If [the state] misses the chance currently open to it then it could end in tragedy," he told Russky Dom viewers.

Speaking to Keston on 19 February, Medvedko commented that the dioceses issue demanded the attention of the state authorities as it could potentially lead to serious conflict. While criticising the Vatican's moves from an ethical point of view, he acknowledged that it had acted within the law. In Medvedko's view, the issue was one of interconfessional rather than church-state relations, so that it was "best for the state to take up a neutral position." When Keston pointed out that the Vatican was also a state, Medvedko maintained that in the given situation it had acted as a religious centre: "After all, they didn't re-form an embassy here." (END)