RUSSIA: Yaroslavl - Anti-Catholic Black Spot?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 30 September 2002

Catholics in the city of Yaroslavl (175 miles or 280 kilometres north-east of Moscow) were told that a previously approved plot of land for their new church was unsuitable for a religious building shortly before their parish priest, Fr Stanislav Krajnak, was refused a new Russian visa on 2 August, Keston News Service has learnt.

According to Sister Mariya, a Polish nun who assists Yaroslavl's Catholic parish of the Raising of the Cross, the city's architecture department originally allocated them a plot of land on 27 December 2001, and the two parties subsequently liaised over a suitable design in numerous meetings, the last of which took place in late June. Since the proposed site lies in the historical centre of Yaroslavl, final approval must be given by the mayor's office, she told Keston on 5 September, but in July this was unexpectedly withheld.

Viewed by Keston, the plot of land is situated on the very edge of the historical city centre alongside a dilapidated two-storey residential building which housed Yaroslavl's pre-revolutionary Catholic chapel. Keston could not ascertain why the site might be deemed specifically unsuitable for a religious building, especially as an imposing new Baptist prayer house stands in the same street.

First registered in April 2000, the parish of the Raising of the Cross has grown from approximately 15 parishioners in that year to some 50 today, and includes people of mostly German, Baltic or Russian descent. The parishioners currently meet in a ground-floor flat containing a small chapel consecrated by Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz on 16 May 2001.

The first priest to be invited by the Catholic community in 2000, Fr Stefano Caprio tried to win back the pre-revolutionary church building, according to Sister Mariya, but was informed that this would be possible only if the Catholics paid for the relocation of the 40 families currently resident there. The parish subsequently decided that it would be preferable to build a new church, she said, since relocation and renovation costs would have been immense, and western donors would not have been prepared to pay for the rehousing of people without any connection to the parish. Fr Stefano Caprio had his valid visa revoked earlier this year (see KNS 11 April 2002).

Interviewed by Keston on 5 September, the official dealing with religious affairs in Yaroslavl region, Boris Kuznetsov, described the Catholic church building as a "delicate issue", and stressed that a site should be found where it would not provoke conflict. While it was "absolutely impossible" to return the old church building, he said, in his view a religious organisation should be allocated a plot of land if it could not recover its pre-revolutionary premises. In the case of Yaroslavl's Lutheran church, he said, the authorities had relocated four organisations so as to return the historical building to believers, "so there is a precedent." The city's Catholics, however, had not yet been allocated a plot for a new church, he maintained.

While stressing that he would not characterise the regional authorities' relations with the local Orthodox diocese as "not alright," Kuznetsov told Keston that there had been cases when Orthodox representatives had asked them not to allow the Catholics to build a new church, which he considered to be incorrect. Asked to clarify, Kuznetsov said that these representatives were from "para-Orthodox" organisations. In his opinion, the Catholics could not do anything negative in Yaroslavl. "I would be more relaxed if they grew at the expense of those whose ancestors were Catholic, but if they don't it is still legal," he remarked. While Orthodox clergy might want everyone to be Orthodox, "times have changed," said Kuznetsov, "and we need to be calm about it."

Kuznetsov maintained that, having just returned from his summer holiday, he did not know why Fr Stanislav Krajnak had not been granted a new visa. While he was aware that Fr Stefano Caprio had worked in Yaroslavl, he also claimed not to know why his visa had been revoked, since he had been formally based in Vladimir. Kuznetsov was also unable to say why a third foreign Catholic clergyman who had worked in Yaroslavl region, Brother Bruno Maziolek, was refused a Russian visa last year (see KNS 17 September 2002).

While Sister Mariya showed Keston a few somewhat anti-Catholic local newspaper articles and mentioned a small anti-Catholic demonstration attended by some Orthodox in April, she was unable to pinpoint who might be responsible for the difficulties the Catholics were experiencing. However, she did refer to an interview shown several times on local television with Fr Oleg Razumov, a local Orthodox priest in charge of the diocesan missionary department and relations with the armed forces, in which he reportedly spoke negatively about the Catholic parish.

Interviewed in his parish on the edge of Yaroslavl on 6 September, Fr Oleg Razumov commented that he was surprised that Fr Stanislav had not been issued a new visa, since, in his view, there could be no complaints about his activity: "He was the best option - I can only assume that the authorities don't want any kind of Catholic presence here." This was in contrast to Fr Stefano Caprio, said Fr Razumov, whom he accused of engaging in aggressive mission to students by approaching university language faculty tutors and offering free courses on Italian culture: "That is how the Catholic community was formed." Of approximately 35 parishioners, he said, there were only 12 real Catholics in Yaroslavl - "my colleagues examined each one" - but even they had become Catholic due to Catholic preachers, he maintained.

While Fr Oleg said that Protestantism did not interest him and dismissed its significance in Russia as "just a phase," he sharply criticised Catholic methods of working. Referring to Catholics' defence of their ministry among Russians who are not active Orthodox churchgoers, he remarked: "That's like saying that it is alright to take something valuable on the street, like a car, because it wasn't left in a garage. But on the street they are all baptised Orthodox."

According to Fr Oleg, both the Russian Orthodox Church and the authorities shared a concern that the Catholics were "buying souls" in Russia. When Keston queried how the concept of "soul" could be of concern to the secular authorities, he pointed out that the Latin for "soul" ("psychos") encompassed the mind, and "buying souls" therefore involved winning over a person's entire allegiance. "The Catholic Church's centre is outside the Russian Federation," he remarked, "so Catholics will be more interested in benefitting the Vatican than Yaroslavl." With regard to the possibility of a Catholic church building in Yaroslavl, Fr Oleg said only that he had given Fr Stanislav Krajnak three pieces of advice: 1) Not to fight for the old building in the centre, since "many people talk about Catholic expansion now, and they will ask why Orthodox churches are collapsing while the Catholics have a renovated one; 2) To site a new Catholic church on the edge of the city, "to act as a filter, it would be clear who was genuinely Catholic and who was coming to drink coffee"; and 3) To hear what he had to say before going ahead with construction: "I know the situation here and the Catholics in the community may not." (END)