RUSSIA: What Did Putin Tell the Pope About Banished Bishop?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 5 September 2002

More than a month after the Russian president Vladimir Putin wrote to Pope John Paul II to explain why one of Russia's four Catholic bishops is being denied entry to the country, the exact reasons he gave remain unclear. The pope had sought an explanation from Putin in the wake of the stripping of the visa from Bishop Jerzy Mazur of Irkutsk, a Polish citizen, at Moscow's Sheremyetevo airport in April and a similar move against the Italian Catholic priest Father Stefano Caprio (see KNS 24 April 2002). The pope had also asked for these moves to be revoked. Keston News Service has learnt from a Vatican official close to Russian affairs that Putin's letter has not led to any progress in resolving the visa denials.

The pope had sought a response from President Putin in a letter of 8 May. "Forbidding a bishop from staying with his flock has always been regarded throughout history as a very serious matter," the Vatican official told Keston from Rome on 5 September. "That's why the Holy Father wrote to President Putin."

Although the pope several weeks later received what the Vatican official says was a "first answer" orally from Russia's ambassador to the Holy See, Vitali Litvin, Catholic representatives several times complained that Putin had failed to respond to the letter, but he eventually did so in writing.

The Vatican official told Keston that he had not seen Putin's response and declined to discuss its contents. "The letter is in the hands of the Holy Father. Not many in the Vatican have seen it." He added that Catholic leaders had decided it would be better not to make Putin's letter public.

The Moscow-based Catholic leader Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz has likewise declined to reveal what Putin had written. He told the Associated Press in Moscow on 28 August that in his response a month earlier, Putin had failed to explain the visa denials. "The answer did not satisfy us."

The Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire, quoting "Russian diplomatic sources", declared that Putin had written that the removal of visas from Bishop Mazur and Father Caprio were not the "result of a campaign against the Catholic Church". It said that Putin had told the pope that the question was, rather, one of "normal measures" taken by a sovereign state against individual foreign citizens.

The US-based Catholic World News has learnt from Vatican sources that Putin had declared in his letter that he personally did not have anything against the Catholic Church, but could not take any step towards Bishop Mazur as he was guilty of using the Japanese name for southern Sakhalin, which is part of his diocese. Putin's claim echoes a statement made by the Russian foreign ministry last February, when it complained that Bishop Mazur's title included the designation "Karafuto", the name it had between 1905 and 1945 when southern Sakhalin was Japanese territory. The Vatican insisted that the use of "Karafuto" had merely been a formality, but changed its designation for this part of the diocese to "South Sakhalin" in April of this year.

Speaking to Keston, the Vatican official lamented that Bishop Mazur's case has reached a stalemate. "I don't know of any moves forward. But our hope is great. Prayer is very important." He noted that Bishop Mazur communicates daily with his flock by telephone and e-mail.

Asked whether Pope John Paul had responded to Putin's letter, the official declared: "The letter was a response to the Holy Father's enquiry. It does not need a response." He said the pope had asked Putin in his May letter for Bishop Mazur to be allowed to return to his diocese "in accordance with the Russian constitution". "The Holy Father does not ask for any privileges for Catholics. He has been very moderate and very delicate, although he knows the rights of the people [Bishop Mazur's flock]. It is his intention to be conciliatory without neglecting the assistance to local Catholics."

The Vatican official contrasted the situation for the Catholic Church in Russia - where two of the four Catholic dioceses have been refused official registration - with that in neighbouring Ukraine and in other former Soviet republics. He pointed out that Bishop Mazur's request for Russian citizenship had also been denied. He described gaining local citizenship - if he did not already have it - as "the first duty" of a bishop. He said this was already proceeding in other former Soviet republics. He contrasted Bishop Mazur's difficulties with those of Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Aleksy, who was born in Estonia, and other Orthodox bishops, many of whom were born outside the countries where they now serve.

In the wake of the stripping of valid visas from Bishop Mazur and Father Caprio, another Catholic cleric Stanislav Krajnak, a Slovak who had been working in Yaroslavl, was denied a new visa (see KNS 9 August 2002). He was forced to leave Russia at the end of August when his one-year visa expired. (END)