Keston in The Tablet: The Bullying of Russia's Catholics

Lawrence Uzzell, 4 May 2002

An organised campaign is being waged against Catholics in Russia. The director of the Keston Institute research centre, based in Oxford, is concerned at this threat to religious freedom.

"The real founder of the Roman Catholic Church in Siberia was Stalin." Those bitter words from a Moscow Catholic recall the tens of thousands of Russian citizens of Polish, Lithuanian, or German descent exiled to places such as the Magadan prison colony on the Pacific coast, where some of their descendants are still living. Today Magadan is part of the largest (in territory) Catholic diocese in the world, with its see in Irkutsk near Lake Baikal - six time zones east of Moscow. But since 19 April Moscow officials have blocked the bishop of that diocese, Jerzy Mazur, from entering the country - part of Russia's fiercest anti-Catholic crackdown since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That crackdown feeds on an ultra-nationalist myth, nurtured by too many irresponsible Russians in high places. Simply put, the myth is that the pre-Soviet Russian heartland was homogeneously Orthodox, with Roman Catholics to be found only in the tsarist empire's westernmost possessions such as Poland. The myth-makers insist that the Vatican today is practising "spiritual aggression" (they favour military metaphors) against this Orthodox homeland. They point out that since 1991 Rome has established about 300 Catholic parishes in a country which had only two during most of the Soviet years. Also, Rome has sent several hundred priests to serve these parishes, nearly all of them foreigners.

Like many myths popular in today's Russia, this one depends on the amputation of historical memory so effectively performed by Soviet propagandists. The average Russian has no idea that even tsarist Russia was already a demographic mixing bowl, though not to the bloody extent of Stalin's regime, with its forced transfers of entire peoples such as the Chechens. The typical provincial capital in nineteenth-century Siberia was already home to a local minority of ethnic Poles, some of whose ancestors had been exiled for taking part in Poland's futile attempts to secede from the Russian empire. The later Romanoff tsars were sufficiently tolerant to allow these local ethnic enclaves to form Catholic parishes, whose priests could function freely as long as they did not try to win converts from outside their ethnic communities; thus the Orthodox were free to proselytise the Catholics, but not vice versa.

Despite decades of Soviet vandalism which destroyed both Orthodox and Catholic church buildings, a fair number of nineteenth-century Catholic churches are still standing today. One of the most impressive is the Church of the Assumption in Irkutsk, a charming city once renowned as "the Paris of the East". Nobody would ever mistake this Western-style building for an Orthodox church: it looks as exotic in eastern Siberia as Russian onion domes would in Dublin. Like most churches of all confessions in Russia, it was confiscated by the Bolsheviks and converted to secular use; today it is a symphony hall. In some Russian cities the current occupants of such sacred buildings, be they Catholic or Orthodox, refuse to make even the slightest concessions to their rightful owners. The civilised musicians of Irkutsk, by contrast, have voluntarily shared their concert hall with the restored Catholic parish since the early Nineties.

The overwhelming majority of Catholic parishes in Russia today are like that of Irkutsk, in that they are not newly planted missions but restorations of parishes forcibly disbanded under Stalin. The total number of parishes is roughly equal to the number that existed before 1917 within what is now the Russian Federation. The few exceptions are in places such as Magadan, a city which did not even exist before Stalin's security organs developed it as a labour-camp centre to exploit the remote region's newly discovered precious metals. As a totally Soviet creation, Magadan did not have above-ground Christian worship of any kind until the Eighties.

Magadan's Catholic priest is from Alaska, his counterparts in Irkutsk are from Poland, those of Kazan on the central Volga are from Argentina. The awkward fact is that only 15 per cent of Catholic priests are citizens of the Russian Federation - a fact made much of by Russia's xenophobes. This fact, too, has a perfectly natural explanation. Before the Nineties, Russia had no seminaries in which young men could study for Roman Catholic orders. Thus it is inevitable that for the next generation, the majority of Catholic clergy in Russia will be foreigners. Also inevitably, the largest contributor of these foreign priests is Poland - the one country that has large, readily available reserves of priests who speak Russian.

Unfortunately, relations between Poles and Russians are always tricky. Russians remember the Polish invasion of the early seventeenth century in the way that Victorian Englishmen remembered the Spanish Armada, as an assault on both their state and their religion. Russian folk prejudices are more deeply and intensely anti-Catholic than anti-Protestant, not because of the genuine theological disagreements (far fewer than the disagreements between Orthodoxy and Protestantism), but because of secular political memories. Thanks in part to the insensitive behaviour of many Western Protestant missionaries in the Nineties, anti-Protestant prejudices are now growing as well.

Nevertheless, until recently Catholics had relatively fewer problems than Protestants in post-Soviet Russia. It has usually been Protestants who have found themselves barred from renting rooms in public buildings for Sunday worship. It has usually been Protestant, not Catholic, missionaries who have been abruptly expelled from Russia. Again, the reason is political: the Roman Catholic Church is a tougher target. Even its remotest Siberian parish is part of a unified, worldwide organisation with hundreds of millions of members in countries with which Moscow desires good relations. The splintered Protestant denominations, especially those with extremely decentralised doctrines of church governance, have no such advantage.

In principle the statement of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, should require Catholics to uphold not only their own but Protestants' rights in Russia. Unfortunately, that has not always happened in practice. In 1997 the Vatican sent an official letter to the Kremlin calling for an amendment to the proposed new law on Church- State relations then under debate, so that Catholicism would be formally listed as one of the country's "traditional religions", along with Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. The Vatican letter simply ignored the proposed law's most serious flaws, such as its provisions discriminating against the independent initsiativniki Baptists and other religious bodies which had refused to collaborate with the Soviet regime. Essentially, Rome was appealing to Moscow to add Catholics to the short list of religions with special privileges, while leaving the Protestants as second-class citizens. President Boris Yeltsin rejected that appeal, and the law that he signed later that year was and is equally threatening to both Catholics and Protestants. For Russia's Catholics it took longer for that threat to become reality - but this spring it did so with a vengeance.

Within the span of just a few weeks in April, Catholics suddenly caught up with Protestants as targets of Russian repression. Officials at Moscow's international airport confiscated the multiple-entry visa of Fr Stefano Caprio, a prominent Italian priest serving parishes in Vladimir and Ivanovo, north-east of Moscow. The local authorities in Magadan stepped up threats to liquidate the parish there on the spurious grounds that its priest (a citizen of the United States) does not have a residence permit. An Irish priest serving in the Volga River town of Saratov was warned that he would have to suspend his religious activities on one week's notice. The city of Pskov in western Russia blocked construction of a Catholic church building.

The climax came on 19 April, when Bishop Jerzy Mazur was barred from flying back to his flock in Irkutsk. The head of Russia's Catholics, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, declared the next day that "an organised campaign is being waged against the Catholic Church in Russia".

The good news is that this campaign has turned out to have less popular support than one might have expected. The Moscow correspondent of Keston News Service, Geraldine Fagan, reports that the turnout for the big anti-Catholic demonstration in that city on 28 April was less than impressive - only 1,500 according to official police figures, in a city of 10 million. She predicts that if President Vladimir Putin wants to, he can safely override public opinion on this issue; the key lobbyists trying to influence him will be highly placed anti-Catholic forces such as the Moscow Patriarchate, against Western governments and international organisations committed to religious freedom.

So far Putin and his inner circle have kept their distance from the new anti-Catholic campaign, which bizarrely contrasts with the President's recent overtures to the Vatican. In this, as in other areas, Putin apparently is trying to balance his strategy of reaching out to the West with his need to appease domestic constituencies that remain viscerally anti-Western. Another ingredient is his own authoritarian instincts; genuine religious freedom sits uneasily with his KGB-honed preference for order and obedience.

Putin may well make his officials back down on the case of Bishop Mazur, whose press interviews from his current perch in Warsaw are all the more embarrassing to Moscow precisely because the bishop's rhetoric is so conciliatory. Lower-ranking Catholic clergy, however, are likely to continue facing petty harassment punctuated with the occasional harsh crackdown. For advice on how to cope, they can draw on the all too rich experience of their Protestant brethren.

Copyright (c) 2002 The Tablet. All rights reserved.