SPECIAL REPORT - RUSSIA: Vatican Demands Religious Freedom.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 5 July 2002

Human rights is the issue at the heart of the expulsions from Russia in April of Bishop Jerzy Mazur and Fr Stefano Caprio (see KNS 24 April 2002), Vatican sources insisted recently to Keston News Service in Rome. "The why and in what circumstances [of the expulsions] is just smoke," commented one. "In the end the basic question is the Catholic Church's right to re-establish freedom of religion wherever she has faithful, where that freedom has been violated for decades. This has to be recognised by the Moscow Patriarchate.

"The Vatican sources interviewed by Keston on 13 and 14 June all asked to remain anonymous, believing that attributed statements could encumber future face-to-face dialogue with representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate.

According to two of the sources, the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Vitali Litvin, gave assurances at an official function in Rome on 12 June that the situation surrounding Bishop Mazur would be "cleared up", and that there would be some "new developments" in the situation during the following week. On 23 June, however, the Holy See's secretary for foreign relations, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, told a Catholic news agency that President Vladimir Putin had not yet responded to an 8 May letter from Pope John Paul II requesting a full explanation for the bishop's expulsion, nor had there been a reply from Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to his own analogous enquiry on 20 April.

This silence has astonished the Holy See. "We don't believe that it was the president or the foreign minister who asked for these measures to be taken [against Mazur and Caprio]," commented one source, "but it is difficult to understand how a power like Russia can allow its international relations to be jeopardised by officials from a lower level of administration.

"The same source maintained that there was "a kind of link" between the Vatican's decision to upgrade its four apostolic administrations to dioceses on 11 February and the expulsions. "We keep telling the Russian civil administration: 'We may debate the concept of canonical territory - which we reject - with the Russian Orthodox Church, but not with YOU; like other civil administrations in the world you have signed and must adhere to international human rights commitments which grant religious freedom to individuals, and not to whole territories, so don't you come to us with this idea.'" Another source was nevertheless confident of an imminent shift in the Russian authorities' stance: "Russia is a country where democracy is enshrined by law and the constitution - they will deal with this matter."

The sources insisted that the Vatican's 11 February dioceses decision constituted the righting of a "great injustice" - the complete suppression of Catholic dioceses during the Soviet period. "Wherever you have faithful, you have bishops," said one, "it [the upgrading to dioceses] was an ordinary administrative decision by the Catholic Church made in order to take care of her faithful, just like the Orthodox Church does in western Europe." In Russia, he pointed out, Catholics are as widely scattered as in a country like Canada, where huge areas are covered by Catholic bishops, as well as Anglicans and Orthodox. "Why isn't it possible in Russia for us to provide a normal ecclesiastical structure to take care of our faithful? The day we try to repair the injustice done to them we are called invaders, proselytisers.

"Two of the sources also made the point that in recent years the Vatican has enormously improved its relations with the Orthodox world - except for the Moscow Patriarchate. They both suggested that Ukraine - and specifically the papal visit to that country last summer - lay behind this. The fact that during the visit the pope had met Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko), head of the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate, had particularly rankled the Moscow Patriarchate, thought one. "The pope had no wish to meet with Filaret on a church basis," explained this source, "he had to shake hands with him because the president [Leonid Kuchma] invited him."

The Vatican was also finding it difficult to resolve the alleged hostilities in westernmost Ukraine between the Eastern-rite Catholics and the Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox which are regularly cited by the Russian patriarch as an obstruction to dialogue, another source told Keston. While the Holy See had welcomed the creation three years ago of an interchurch commission to discuss the issue, he maintained, the local Orthodox bishops in west Ukraine "didn't want to take part - they said there was no need as they had no disagreements [with the Eastern-rite Catholics]".If this were the case, Keston asked another source, why had the Vatican not then been more forceful in its rejection of the Moscow Patriarchate's accusations that the Eastern-rite Catholics had destroyed its west Ukrainian dioceses, as well as of accusations of proselytism by its clergy in Russia? "We asked: 'Give us information on concrete cases and let us discuss them,'" he replied. "We did not get it. We don't answer general propaganda, that we are destroying blah-blah-blah."

The Moscow Patriarchate's opposition to Catholic dioceses in Russia, maintained the same source, constitutes a failure to honour the agreement brokered between the two confessions in 1993 in Balamand, Lebanon. According to this agreement, Oriental Catholic Churches (among which the source evidently included the Catholic Church in Russia) "have the right to exist and to act in answer to the spiritual needs of their faithful". The source also accused the Moscow Patriarchate of rejecting the Balamand affirmation that "the inviolable freedom of persons and their obligation to follow the requirements of their conscience remains secure". The Moscow Patriarchate's February synodal statement which described the Russian people as "culturally, spiritually and historically the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church," he explained, was tantamount to telling Russians "you have no right to belong to another faith."

All the Vatican sources interviewed by Keston emphasised that it was not the aim of the Roman Catholic Church to supplant the Orthodox Church in Russia. According to one, the statement that the universal Church "subsists in" (rather than "is") the Roman Catholic Church in the Vatican's declaration "Dominus Iesus", issued in August 2000, "leaves open the existence of church reality outside our visible boundaries." The Roman Catholic Church acknowledges that the universal Church also "subsists in" the Orthodox Church, he claimed. "They have everything but the Petrine ministry, the only thing which divides us."

Keston requested an interview with Ambassador Litvin a month prior to visiting the Vatican, but received no reply. While travelling outside Rome, however, Keston encountered a diplomatic representative from the Russian Embassy to Italy, who commented that the Vatican would accept Christian unity only under the pope and was working towards this end, but this was absolutely unacceptable to the Russian Orthodox Church. While the Russian state had no objection to a papal visit, she said, the Orthodox Church would regard it as a concession to the Vatican's desired form of church unity which "pride will not allow". (END)