RUSSIA: Vatican Has 'No Special Plans' for St Petersburg Diocese.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 23 April 2002

The Holy See has "no project at the moment" to establish a new Catholic diocese in St Petersburg, a senior Vatican official has told Keston News Service. Rumours have been circulating in Rome and Moscow that the current visa difficulties being experienced by Bishop Jerzy Mazur of eastern Siberia (see KNS 22 April 2002) may have been intended as a preemptive response by the Russian authorities to a potential St Petersburg Catholic diocese.

Speaking by telephone from the Vatican on 23 April, the official confirmed that discussion about a diocese based in St Petersburg - as well as dioceses in other places such as Vladivostok in the far east or the enclave of Kaliningrad - have been under discussion "for the past ten years". "People say they need these dioceses - this is no surprise. Russia is a large country and needs local dioceses."

The Vatican dioceses which existed in the Russian Empire became defunct during the Soviet period, when Catholic activity was severely restricted. It was only in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Church could rebuild its official structures. It established an apostolic administration in Moscow and another in Novosibirsk. In May 1999 it split each of these into two, adding an apostolic administration for southern European Russia, based in Saratov, and an apostolic administration for Eastern Siberia, based in Irkutsk. In February of this year, the Vatican upgraded these four apostolic administrations into fully-fledged dioceses, evoking immediate protests from the Russian Orthodox Church (see KNS 12 February 2002).

The Catholic Church in Russia has always insisted that under international human rights and religious liberty conventions all religious groups have the right to organise themselves as they choose, a right recognised by the Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) in its response to the protests surrounding the upgrading of the apostolic administrations. "Without casting doubt on the right of the Catholic church to organise itself in accordance with canonical standards," the ministry declared in its 12 February statement, "but taking into account that this question primarily affects interchurch relations and could be the cause of their serious complication, MFA of Russia recommended to the Holy See to refrain at the present time from transforming the apostolic administrations into dioceses and to coordinate it with the Russian Orthodox church."

It remains to be seen what response the Russian Foreign Ministry gives if and when the Vatican does create further dioceses in Russia. (END)