RUSSIA: Who's Afraid of Vologda's Catholics?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 30 September 2002

Two days before Yaroslavl's Slovak Catholic parish priest was told that he would not receive a new Russian entry visa, a local newspaper in the neighbouring region of Vologda (approximately 300 miles or 500 kilometres north-east of Moscow) printed an article sharply critical of his previous parish there, by whose invitation he was in Russia.

According to the article - which took its information from a local "Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Non-traditional Religions" - Vologda's Catholic parish is in fact a "sectarian organisation" belonging to "confessions of a pseudo-religious character." While such rhetoric is not unusual in Russian provincial press articles attacking Protestants, it is the first to refer to Catholics in such a way to Keston's knowledge.

Published in "Nash Region" ("Our Region") local newspaper on 31 July, "Catholic Church of Vanity" also cited allegations that Vologda's parish of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was "engaged in the gathering of political and socio-economic information, including that of a closed nature."

Former parish warden of the parish Olga Shirikova vehemently denies allegations that the Catholics are conducting espionage. "There has never been any question of politics, but if Bishop Jerzy [Mazur], Fr Stanislav [Krajnak] and Fr Stefano [Caprio] have all gone, someone is apparently afraid of Catholics," she told Keston in Vologda on 2 September. In her view, the article had appeared in order to provide grounds not to give a visa to the parish's current priest, Slovak Fr Iosif Roman, in future.

The reason for the appearance of the article is given as the Vologda Catholic parish's "pointless" attempts to recover its pre-revolutionary building, privatised as a restaurant and sauna in the early 1990s, as well as its intentions to build a new church "not just anywhere, but in the very centre of Vologda." According to another former parish warden, Franz Jaworsky, however, the parish's attempts to recover the pre-revolutionary church have been ongoing since its registration in 1993, with the local authorities consistently claiming to be unable to return the privatised building.

Neither, as far as Jaworsky and Shirikova knew, were there any particular recent developments concerning the parish's similarly ongoing attempts to acquire land to build a new church which could have reasonably occasioned the "Nash Region" article. On 23 September in Moscow Fr Iosif Roman told Keston that the Catholic Church in Russia did not currently wish to publicise specifics regarding its attempts to recover or else rebuild churches in Vologda and Yaroslavl (see separate KNS article), both of whose parishes he now covers.

Interviewed by Keston on 3 September, the head of Vologda's Regional State Directorate for the Preservation, Restoration and Utilisation of Historical and Cultural Monuments said that the pre-revolutionary Catholic church had been privatised illegally by the municipal authorities unbeknown to his department, which had refused to approve the action in 1994. Mikhail Karachov, confirmed that there were ongoing attempts to recover the building, but that it had only just passed the first stage of a long process to become listed as a state protected cultural monument.

In their ground-floor flat not far from their pre-revolutionary church, it is difficult to imagine who could regard Vologda's Catholics as a threat. Olga Shirikova recited to Keston a list of the parish's 30 members, all of whom were clearly of traditionally Catholic Baltic, Polish, Belarusian, German or Hungarian background. Fr Iosif and two Catholic sisters were solely taken up by work with these parishioners, Shirikova maintained: "I went to catechism for a month in 1948, and there were no books. We have many - maybe stupid - questions: 'Can I use someone else's rosary?' 'Can I pray wearing a T-shirt?'"

The parishioners themselves have no idea who in Vologda might want to publish such a vehemently anti-Catholic article. While her practising Orthodox friends would sometimes question purgatory [a doctrine not held in the Orthodox Church], they otherwise "got along fine," said Shirikova.

Interviewed by Keston on 3 September, secretary of Vologda Orthodox diocese Fr Igor Sharshakov said that he had not seen the "Nash Region" article. Given a brief synopsis of its contents, he commented that some of his parishioners of Polish descent had complained to him that they had been pressurised by the Catholics to go over to them - "that's certainly a sectarian method: proselytism." However, he dismissed Catholic influence in the city, maintaining that there were only about half a dozen Catholic parishioners. Fr Igor pointed out that the Orthodox diocese did not have any special relationship with the local authorities and shared the Catholics' problems concerning property restitution. In 2001 the Orthodox had unsuccessfully tried to recover the prominent Cathedral of the Resurrection, now an art gallery, he said, and their attempt had been accompanied by strong criticism in the local press. He also referred Keston to a former Orthodox church around the corner from the former Catholic church which has similarly been privatised as a cafe.

Speaking to a western journalist on 3 September, the head of Vologda's Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Non-traditional Religions, Vladimir Lyzhin, said that he had also not read the "Nash Region" article. Recited some of the information alleged to have come from his centre, Lyzhin insisted that the information was "nothing to do with us" and that he had "nothing against Catholics," who, in his view, were not a sect. (END)