SPECIAL REPORT - RUSSIA: Anti-Catholic Feeling On the Wane?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 20 May 2002

"All is quiet on the Russian front," writes Catholic monk Fr Wilhelm Spirito in his 28 April Moscow diary entry. Published by the German newspaper Rheinischer Merkur on 9 May, Fr Spirito's diary observations of 23 and 26 April by contrast refer to his order's telephones apparently being tapped and Catholic clergy postponing trips abroad for fear of being denied re-entry to Russia in the same way as Bishop Jerzy Mazur and Fr Stefano Caprio (see KNS 11 and 22 April 2002). But on Sunday 28 April, notes Fr Spirito, only some 300 to 500 anti-Catholic demonstrators gathered on a central Moscow square as part of a Russia-wide action co-organised by the Union of Orthodox Citizens and the People's Party of the Russian Federation: "this is hardly a big turn-out in a city of officially 12 million!" Official police figures put the number of Moscow protesters rather higher - but still at only 1,500.

Could the wave of anti-Catholic feeling in response to the Vatican's 11 February decision to upgrade its ecclesiastical structures in Russia to dioceses thus have passed its peak? Speaking to Keston News Service on 16 May, Andrei Sarychev, a presidential administration official specialising in relations with the Catholic Church, thought that the apparently low turn-out at the 28 April protests was due to their being individual local initiatives largely subject to regional variation: "I didn't hear of anything in Kaliningrad, for example." If there had been a command from above or an aim set, he maintained, the demonstrations would have been on a much larger scale, like those of 1 May. (A May Day communist march in central Moscow observed by Keston filled major thoroughfares for almost two kilometres or just over a mile.)

In Sarychev's view, those anti-Catholic protests which did take place on 28 April were not the consequence of "strong indignation", but constituted "a natural reaction to the unexpected raising of the status of Catholic structures to dioceses without sufficient consultation." As the Orthodox saw it, he explained, there had been regular dialogue and meetings between the two Churches until the Catholics suddenly "put a spanner in the works." By this, confirmed Sarychev, he meant the way in which the Vatican had notified the Moscow Patriarchate of its decision regarding the four new dioceses in the absence of both the patriarch and Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, as well as coming shortly after a Russian Orthodox delegation had met papal representatives in Assisi, "where nothing had been said".

The apparent lack of resonance of anti-Catholic feeling among the general populace did not enable Sarychev to speculate upon whether Bishop Jerzy Mazur would be likely to return to Russia in the near future, however: "It would all be guesses and conjecture." Still in Poland, Bishop Mazur has begun conducting services in Irkutsk's Catholic cathedral by telephone at the request of his parishioners. Speaking to Keston from Warsaw on 16 May, he reiterated that both the Polish foreign ministry and the Holy See had demanded a full explanation for his expulsion from the Russian authorities, but had yet to receive "any kind of answer". All chances of his possible return, remarked the bishop, were thus "in the hands of diplomats".

There does appear to have been a recent upturn in the fortunes of certain other Catholic clergy in Russia, however. While Keston was unable to contact Fr Michael Screene in Saratov on 16 May, a Catholic source in Moscow told Keston the same day that the Saratov department of justice had on 8 May informed Fr Screene that he could continue to work as parish priest, inviting him to apply for a residence permit immediately. (Fr Screene had earlier been warned by Saratov's department of justice that he could not function as parish priest after 1 May since he is a foreign citizen - see KNS 24 April 2002.)

The Moscow source also told Keston that Magadan Catholic parish priest Fr Michael Shields had returned to Moscow on 2 May and travelled on to Magadan on 7 May without obstruction. Magadan's department of justice had threatened to liquidate US citizen Fr Shields' parish since he does not have a residence permit (see KNS 22 April 2002), but on 15 May, according to the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, Magadan's municipal court ruled that the justice department had acted unlawfully.

There are signs that another local conflict involving the Catholic Church in Russia may also be close to resolution. Local authorities in the western Russian city of Pskov had halted construction on a Catholic church building in the wake of a complaint by local Orthodox Archbishop Yevsevi (Savvin) (see KNS 22 April 2002). In a meeting with Pskov's Catholic parish priest Krzysztof Karolewski - according to a 15 May article in NG-Religii, the religious affairs supplement to Russian daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta - the governor of Pskov region Yevgeni Mikhailov admitted that construction of the church had been halted due to Archbishop Yevsevi's letter. He also reportedly encouraged Fr Karolewski to "come to a compromise" and reduce the height of the planned church's spire so that it did not rise above city's Orthodox cathedral. On 16 May Andrei Sarychev told Keston that the Pskov situation would be "sorted out".

Elsewhere Catholic clergy continue to report difficulties, however. Asked by Keston on 16 May whether he had latterly encountered increased anti-Catholic feeling, one parish priest and foreign citizen wishing to remain anonymous said that he had: "No one from the authorities wants to talk to you officially." This was the case, he said, even though the authorities in the southern Russian region where he serves were not particularly close to the local Orthodox bishop: "bureaucrats are still afraid he might say something." Prior to the formation of Catholic dioceses in Russia on 11 February, said the parish priest, his relations with the regional authorities had been improving, but the parish, which has not been able to regain its historic church building, had since been informed that there was now "no chance" of their obtaining land upon which to build a new church.

According to the priest, however, there had been no public protests in his region, and the local Orthodox bishop had even told his clergy "not to get involved in the debate". In his view, the anti-Catholic protests had not been inspired by the Russian Orthodox Church in the first instance, but by "communists who are apparently Orthodox - they are the biggest problem". In the view of the Catholic source in Moscow, the current anti-Catholic momentum in Russia did not amount to "a campaign as under [sixteenth century English queen] Elizabeth I, but more a concerted and consistent policy of pressure from the Orthodox side, in cahoots with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and possibly the Ministry of Justice".

That momentum is still evident in other areas of public life. On 16 May "Slushaetsya delo" ("Court in session") television programme on Russian TVTs channel considered a case against Catholicism brought by Leonid Semyonovich, leader of Russia's Union of Orthodox Banner-bearers, who characterised the appearance of four Catholic dioceses in Russia as "a continuation of the Vatican policy to incite religious hatred and spread values alien to the Russian Orthodox people". And when parliamentary deputy Viktor Alksnis' proposal to ban the activity of the four Catholic dioceses (see KNS 24 April 2002) finally came before parliament on 15 May, 169 of the 240 deputies present voted in favour. However, this fell short of the 226 votes necessary for the motion to be adopted. (END)