Malign Intervention.

Geraldine Fagan and Lawrence Uzzell, 30 July 2002

President Vladimir Putin's Russia treats certain activities as crimes even though there is no formal law forbidding them - for example, news stories about atrocities in Chechnya. Now the Putin government is taking steps to suppress another activity on which the written laws of the Russian Federation are silent: the religious offense of proselytism.

The concept of proselytism is a specifically Christian one on which Christians do not even agree among themselves. Some Christian denominations, such as the Anglicans, specifically renounce the practice of actively seeking converts from other Christian bodies. Others, such as some of the evangelical Protestants of the American "Bible belt," work actively to expand at the expense of the Roman Catholics in Latin America or of the Orthodox Church in Russia. But even those Western denominations that consider proselytism a violation of ecumenical etiquette do not expect the secular state to enforce that etiquette - any more than they would expect the state to ban the eating of meat on Fridays

The last few months have seen an increasingly intense campaign by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow against the alleged proselytism of Roman Catholic clergy in Russia. This same period has seen a new crackdown by Russia's secular authorities against the Catholics, most dramatically in the expulsion of Bishop Jerzy Mazur. The connection between these two trends remains somewhat mysterious; neither Putin's Kremlin nor Patriarch Alexy II's church bureaucrats encourage the free flow of information. In effect, a certain "division of labor" has emerged, with secular officials taking concrete measures against Roman Catholics and the Moscow Patriarchate providing the propaganda campaign to justify those measures.

This division of labor nicely fits Putin's political interests: He can satisfy Russia's domestic xenophobes while still presenting a more or less civilized face to world opinion. He and his top appointees have failed to make any public statement justifying Bishop Mazur's expulsion, but they have also failed to reverse it. Mazur is still languishing in Warsaw three months after officials at Sheremetyevo Airport barred him from returning to Russia. The Kremlin seems to have calculated that the new alliance against terrorism gives it more leeway to take domestic measures against religious minorities of all kinds, not just Muslims. In May, Pope John Paul II weighed in personally with a letter to Putin requesting a full explanation for Mazur's expulsion. When the Keston News Service recently visited Rome, we were told that the Vatican had yet to receive a reply.

Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarchate has launched a new media campaign against the Roman Catholics, releasing detailed accounts of specific episodes in which the Catholics have allegedly engaged in proselytism in Russia. (For example, the Catholics are said to have used some of their orphanages unfairly to win converts among Orthodox children.) The Catholics have responded with detailed denials, and we are now seeing a full-scale war of words between the two confessions.

Depressing though it may appear, this latter development actually should be seen as a step in the right direction. For the first time the Moscow Patriarchate has implicitly accepted that its sweeping accusations against the Roman Catholics should be substantiated by concrete facts, not just generalized polemics. Some of the accusations may even turn out to be true: after all, there are hundreds of Catholic priests and nuns in Russia, and it is unlikely that all of them have behaved responsibly all the time.

Like the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholics have various factions within their own ranks. Some Catholics, such as Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz in Moscow, believe that the lead in evangelizing the Russians properly belongs to the Orthodox Church, and that Catholics should not try to win converts from among those Russians who are already practicing Orthodox Christians. Others are just as eager as Bible belt Protestants to pursue "the conversion of Russia." Unlike the Protestant denominations, however, the Roman Catholic Church is a centralized, hierarchical structure. The Moscow Patriarchate has every moral right to ask that the Vatican enforce among its own faithful the pope's stated view that the Orthodox Church is one of the "two lungs" of historic Christianity.

On the other hand, the Orthodox side has a responsibility to be more precise in using the emotion-laden term proselytism. The Moscow Patriarchate has even applied that label to Protestant missionaries working in Central Asia to evangelize Uzbeks and others who were raised as atheists and whose ancestors were Muslims. In effect, the Patriarchate is saying that it would be better for the Uzbeks to remain non-Christians than to become Protestants - a position that makes no sense from the standpoint of the Orthodox Church's own theology. Unfortunately, theology seems to play only a minor role here: The Patriarchate seems unwilling to tolerate efforts to convert anyone in the former Soviet Union by any religious body that did not collaborate with the Soviet regime.

Unlike the Mormons or Hare Krishnas, Roman Catholicism is not a novelty in Russia. Before the Bolshevik takeover there were hundreds of Catholic parishes within what is now the Russian Federation, serving local pockets of ethnic Poles and other traditionally Catholic minorities in places as far east as Vladivostok. The Soviet regime liquidated nearly all those parishes; Kondrusiewicz and his fellow clergy are now working to revive them. If the Moscow Patriarchate so chooses it has every right to preach against this Catholic revival - but the secular authorities have no right whatsoever to prevent it.

Lawrence Uzzell is head and Geraldine Fagan is Moscow correspondent of the Keston Institute (www.keston.org), an independent research center based in Oxford, England. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times (www.themoscowtimes.com).

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