RUSSIA: Who Really Opposes Pskov Catholic Church?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 24 September 2002

Two letters vehemently opposing the construction of a new Catholic church in Pskov and "Catholic expansion" in Russia sent in March to Pskov regional governor Yevgeni Mikhailov and Russian president Vladimir Putin respectively were signed by Orthodox Archbishop Yevsevi (Savvin) of Pskov and Velikiye Luki and 18 members of Pskov diocesan council. Several people who spoke to Keston News Service in Pskov in recent days, however, have suggested that, without the personal initiative of the archbishop, there would have been no anti-Catholic protest whatsoever.

While there have been three Orthodox protests at the site of the new church since the letters, Pskov Catholic parish priest Fr Krzysztof Karolewski told Keston on 19 September that only about 20 demonstrators attended the last one on 21 July. "If the majority are really opposed, there should be many thousands protesting," he remarked, and pointed out that the Catholics had also received several telephone calls saying: "Please don't think all Orthodox are like that."

Neither do all Pskov clergy think like Archbishop Yevsevi, in Fr Karolewski's view, "but the priests here are afraid of him". An assistant to Governor Mikhailov, Dmitri Khritonenkov was clearly reluctant to comment on the degree of support enjoyed by the archbishop when interviewed by Keston on 19 September. "Of course a proportion of the clergy [support him] - I can't say how many - it's not just his personal opinion, of course," he remarked. Towards the end of the interview, however, Khritonenkov said that the issue of the new Catholic church was currently being used in the media in connection with forthcoming regional elections. While radicals may appear on local television expressing strongly emotional statements about the building, he said, "that doesn't mean they are in the majority - they are a few individuals".

In Fr Karolewski's view, Archbishop Yevsevi's letters complaining about the new church were connected with the Catholic Church's decision to upgrade its apostolic administrations in Russia to dioceses on 11 February: "Before the dioceses issue there was no criticism at all." Interviewed by Keston in his icon-painting studio in Pskov on 20 September, Orthodox parish priest of the Cathedral of the Nativity of John the Baptist, Fr Andrei Davydov, also noted that the letters had appeared shortly after the dioceses decision. Believing that an anti-Catholic line would now be that of the Russian Orthodox Church, remarked Fr Davydov, Archbishop Yevsevi "decided he would be the most Orthodox on the planet". Otherwise, however, Pskov Orthodox clergy were mostly indifferent, he said: "No one turned up to protest - they've got enough to do."

In Fr Davydov's view, it was unconstitutional not to allow the Catholics to build, especially as there had been a Catholic church in Pskov prior to the revolution. (According to Fr Karolewski, a request in 1991 for the return of this building was rejected on the grounds that there was nowhere to relocate the school which it currently houses.) Fr Davydov saw no sign of Catholic expansion in Pskov - "the Catholics are just restoring what they had" - and pointed out that a mixture of confessions was a normal phenomenon in a border zone. The Catholic presence in Pskov could not pose a threat in any case, maintained Fr Davydov, since, in his view, only a person with a mature Orthodox faith "might start to think about whether the Catholics are right," while the Orthodoxy of most people in Pskov was rather undeveloped.

Fr Davydov also suggested to Keston that Archbishop Yevsevi's attempt to obtain "political dividends" from the issue had backfired. Fr Karolewski agreed. Showing Keston Issue 2 2002 of the Pskov diocese bulletin "Blagodatnyye Luchi", which contains the two letters to Governor Mikhailov and President Putin and a cartoon of Pope John Paul II ushering hordes of devils into Russia, Fr Karolewski quipped that the archbishop was still requesting aid from the international Catholic foundation Aid to the Church in Need at the time of its publication: "Interesting!" While the archbishop had previously received some 80,000 US dollars from western Catholic foundations for different projects, including a theological academy, according to Fr Karolewski, this state of affairs had changed as a result of his vocally anti-Catholic stance. Caritas Austria in particular had subsequently pulled out of a church bakery project, he said. (END)