Keston in the Washington Post. Russia's Growing Religious Repression

Lawrence Uzzell, 17 May 2002

The writer is head of the Oxford-based Keston Institute (www.keston.org), an independent research center specializing in international religious freedom.

When Moscow airport police blocked Roman Catholic bishop Jerzy Mazur fromreturning to his diocese in Siberia last Friday, they confirmed a startling new reality: Almost overnight, Russia's Catholic minority has caught up with the Protestants as a target of repression. Despite President Vladimir Putin'soften genuinely pro-Western moves in foreign policy, including his high-profile overtures to the Vatican, at home Russians' basic freedoms are continuing to shrink, in religion as in other areas.

The surge of anti-Catholic measures has gathered strength in recent weeks. Father Stefano Caprio of Milan, who serves Catholic parishes in two cities near Moscow, had his multiple-entry visa ripped out of his passport at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on April 5. Father Michael Shields from the United States has been told that his parish on Russia's Pacific coast will be liquidated, because he does not have a residence permit. The Keston News Service, which monitors threats to religious freedom across the former Soviet Union, reports that the city of Pskov in western Russia has halted the construction of a new Catholic church building.

For Protestants, this sort of thing is not new. During the past two years Keston has been finding cases of American and other foreign Protestant missionaries arbitrarily denied visas to return to Russia -- some, such as Baptist pastor Dan Pollard, cut off from congregations or charitable programs that they themselves had founded. Since the mid-1990s, local authorities have more and more often denied Protestant congregations the right to rent rooms for prayer meetings in public buildings -- a serious deprivation in a country where most large buildings are state-owned.

Unfortunately, in Russia as elsewhere, the various religious minorities have not always been vigorous in defending each other's rights of conscience, thus allowing the state to play "divide and rule." In 1997 Pope John Paul II wrote to Boris Yeltsin requesting that Russian law formally classify Catholicism as one of the country's "traditional religions," leaving the Protestants out in the cold, even though Lutherans, Baptists and others had a substantial pre-Soviet presence in Russia.

Yeltsin ignored that request, and the harsh legislation he signed that year was equally threatening to Protestants and Catholics, in theory. In practice, Catholics in Russia have experienced fewer problems than Protestants over the past five years, for purely political reasons. The very structure of the Roman Catholic Church, a unified, worldwide organization with millions of members in countries with which Russia wants good relations, makes it a tougher target than the splintered Protestant denominations.

Western Protestants have succumbed to similar temptations. They often seem more interested in defending the rights of American and other foreign missionaries than those of indigenous Russian Protestants, such as the independent "initsiativniki" Baptists, who valiantly refused all forms of compromise with the Soviet state. Sometimes their behavior plays right into the hands of Russian authorities, who portray all minority faiths as new and alien.

For example, Russian nationalists like to depict Roman Catholicism as an almost completely novel presence in Russia, introduced by "proselytizing" clergy from the West only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The very architecture of provincial Russia gives them the lie. In 1996 I visited a manifestly Western-style Catholic church building in Irkutsk, near Siberia's Lake Baikal; it looked as exotic in that setting as Russian onion domes would in Dublin. But the Catholic parish in Irkutsk dates to the mid-19th century, when it was founded by the local Polish community.

In trying to restore the hundreds of parishes within the boundaries of today's Russian Federation that the Soviet regime forcibly disbanded, the Catholics are simply trying to rebuild what they had before 1917. But because there was no seminary in Russia to train indigenous Catholic clergy untilthe1990s, most of the priests serving there are foreigners, for the time being-- largely Poles, who, unfortunately, are especially suspect to many Russians.

Russia's 1993 constitution clearly states that all religious associations are equal under the law and that both citizens and non-citizens legally present on Russian soil have full religious freedom. This of course is the same constitution that guarantees freedom of the press, which also has declined under Putin. Even if his officials should reverse themselves on the high-profile case of Bishop Mazur, the prospects for establishing genuine rule of law in Russia will continue to look bleak.

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