RUSSIA: Putin-Pope Correspondence Inconclusive.

Geraldine Fagan and Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 16 September 2002

President Vladimir Putin's reply to Pope John Paul II did not contain any explanation for why Bishop Jerzy Mazur was refused entry to Russia but stated rather that one had already been given, a Catholic source informed of the letter's contents told Keston News Service on 13 September. The letter was brief, according to the source, and otherwise consisted solely of diplomatic rhetoric emphasising the importance of the Russian Federation's relations with the Holy See as part of the international community.

While declining to comment on the letter's contents, secretary to the Catholic nuncio in Moscow Fr Tomasz Grysa told Keston on 13 September that it had been sent to the Vatican at the beginning of August - or some three months after the pope's initial 8 May enquiry. On 5 September a Vatican official told Keston that he had not seen the Russian president's response and declined to discuss its contents (see KNS 5 September 2002).

Citing Russian diplomatic sources, Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire had stated in August that Putin's letter detailed how Bishop Jerzy Mazur and Fr Stefano Caprio had not had their visas removed as a result of a campaign against the Catholic Church. On 14 August, however, a Catholic source in Moscow told Keston that the letter - the exact text of which he had not seen - contained reference only to Bishop Mazur.

Pope John Paul II's original enquiry to President Putin also referred solely to Bishop Mazur, according to the Holy See's secretary for foreign relations, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran. Speaking to Vatican Radio on 22 June, the archbishop said that the purpose of the pope's letter was to request the Russian president's "personal intervention so that a pastor, who from our point of view has always shown himself generous and loyal, could be restored to the Catholic community of that vast territory of the Russian Federation."

On 19 August Russian religious affairs website <> reported the head of the Catholic Church in Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, as remarking while in Poland that he found President Putin's letter to the pope disappointing since it did not give any explanation for Bishop Mazur's non-admittance to Russia. The archbishop also reportedly maintained that Putin's reply created the impression that he foresaw a difficult future for the Catholic Church in Russia.

If Putin's letter does indeed refer to a previous explanation, this would appear to be that given by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko to Interfax news agency on 23 April. According to Yakovenko, Bishop Mazur was refused entry to Russia "strictly in accordance with Article 27 of the 1996 Russian Federation law on the procedure of entering and leaving the country." On 8 September, Russian Catholic newspaper "Svet Yevangeliya" ("Light of the Gospel") reported that, in response to an enquiry made by the office of Russia's human rights ombudsman, the Foreign Ministry further specified that it was under Part 1 of Article 27 - or for reasons of state security - that Bishop Mazur was not admitted to Russia on 19 April.

The only other official statement by the Foreign Ministry relating to Bishop Mazur appears to shed light upon these security considerations. Issued on 27 February, it sharply criticised the inclusion of the name "Karafuto" in Bishop Mazur's title as "an unfriendly act and interference in the internal affairs of Russian Federation." "Karafuto" was the geographical name for the southern part of the Pacific island of Sakhalin during the period 1905-45, when it was Japanese territory.

Speaking by telephone from South Sakhalin on 11 September, Catholic parish priest Emile Dumas pointed out to Keston that Svet Yevangeliya published a centre-spread "Catholic Map of Russia" on 17 February in which the southern half of Sakhalin was separated by a line from the northern half and coloured in with the same shade of grey as Japan. While it had not been intended to make any statement about the territorial integrity of Russia with this map, thought Fr Dumas, its publication coincided with heated political debate in both Moscow and Sakhalin about Japanese claims to the south of the island, and the Russian side would most likely interpret the map as saying: "We, the Roman Catholic Church, support Japan on this issue."

Contacted by Keston on 16 September, the deputy head of the department for relations with religious organisations within the main internal policy division of the Russian presidential administration declined to confirm the contents of President Putin's reply to the pope, explaining that it was "not our jurisdiction" ("ne nasha eparkhiya"). Aleksandr Kudryavtsev maintained, however, that the grounds upon which five Catholic priests have not been admitted to Russia so far this year were "not of a religious nature" and pointed out that several hundred foreign Catholic priests were currently working in the country.

Kudryavtsev also directed Keston to a statement given to Interfax the same morning (16 September) by a high-ranking Kremlin official, first assistant chairman to the presidential administration's main internal policy division Sergei Abramov. "If the previous three cases were basically justified from the side of the authorities," reads the statement, "it is now being verified whether those who refused entry to the two latest Catholic priests were in the right." Abramov also reportedly commented, however, that there was "no smoke without fire" and concluded that the recent episodes were far from constituting "attacks by the authorities upon the Catholic confession." (END)