Issue 5, Article 21, 25 May 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

Thursday 25 May 2000

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN is expected to visit the Vatican on 6
June during the course of his visit to Italy and will meet Pope JOHN PAUL II,
the Moscow-based Apostolic Administration for Catholics of European Russia
has confirmed to Keston News Service. The Italian embassy in London told
Keston on 25 May that Putin's visit to Italy was scheduled for 5 and 6 June,
though this has yet to be confirmed.

It is not clear whether the Vatican meeting - if it goes ahead - will be purely a
courtesy visit or whether matters of substance will be discussed. Although the
agenda for the proposed meeting has not been disclosed, it is clear from earlier
negotiations between Vatican and Russian officials that the Catholic side will
raise the questions of the establishment of full diplomatic relations, visa
difficulties for Catholic clergy in Russia (the majority of whom are foreign
citizens), registration of Catholic entities and the recovery of property
confiscated during the Soviet period.

The last Soviet President, MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, and the first Russian
President BORIS YELTSIN both met the Pope.

Diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and the Holy See have
been stuck at the same level for a long time. When President Gorbachev met
Pope John Paul in December 1989 it was announced that the two sides would
move to establish full diplomatic relations. Working contacts were duly set up
in March 1990 and envoys were exchanged. Although both envoys have
personal diplomatic status, mutual relations have been frozen at the working
contacts stage. Vatican officials have repeatedly declared that they would like
to upgrade these to full diplomatic relations. The Vatican has full diplomatic
relations with 172 states. Apart from the Russian Federation, only the Palestine
Liberation Organisation maintains a
lower-level `representation' with the Vatican (although some countries have no
diplomatic relations with the Vatican at all).

`During his visit to Russia in December 1999, the Vatican state secretary
IVANOV, as well as the then prime minister Vladimir Putin,' the secretary of
the Russian Bishops' Conference, Father STANISLAW OPIELA, told Keston
on 18 February. `The raising of the level of relations between the Russian
Federation and the Holy See was discussed then (currently there is only a
representation of the Holy See in Russia). The state secretary proposed the
reaching if not of a concordat with the Holy See, then at least an agreement
similar to that concluded in September 1998 with Kazakhstan, which would
greatly ease the position of Catholic clergy in Russia. In addition, traditionally
the papal nuncio is the dean of the diplomatic corps, which has a certain
influence over diplomats of other countries. However, minister Ivanov
responded that "the time is not yet ripe" to raise the level of relations.' Father
Opiela added that during the meeting with Putin, Russia's 1997 law on religion
was discussed and the Russian prime minister agreed that changes needed to be
made to it but that nothing concrete was promised.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed to Keston on 23 May that nothing had
changed in relations between Russia and the Vatican in the past few years.
However, Foreign Ministry officials declined to give further details until early
June in view of the intensive preparations for Putin's forthcoming visit.

Father IGOR KOVALEVSKY, the chancellor of the Apostolic Administration
for Catholics of European Russia, mentioned the question of diplomatic
relations during an interview with Keston on 28 January, together with other
continuing problems for the Catholic Church in Russia, such as visas for
foreign priests and monks and difficulties over the return of property seized
from the Catholic community during the Soviet period. Father Kovalevsky was
particularly concerned that two of Russia's four Apostolic Administrations had
not received registration (those for Catholics of Eastern Siberia and for
Southern European Russia) because their leaders, Bishop JERZY MAZUR and
CLEMENS PICKEL, were foreigners. The two submitted applications to the
Russian Foreign Ministry to receive Russian citizenship, but so far this has not
been decided. `There are all the same problems with the reregistration of the
Jesuits,' Father Kovalevsky added.

In a further interview on 25 May, Father Kovalevsky confirmed to Keston that
the two Apostolic Administrations have still not been registered as the question
of the citizenship of their leaders remains unresolved. However, he believes
there are positive signals, such as the decision of the Constitutional Court on 13
April which declared that the Independent Russian Region of the Society of
Jesus should be allowed to reregister (see separate KNS article).

The new representative of the Holy See in the Russian Federation (apostolic
nuncio), Archbishop GIORGIO ZUR, the former president of the Pontifical
Diplomatic Academy in Rome who was appointed by the Pope at the end of
January, arrived in Moscow on 1 April. However, the papal representation in
Moscow told Keston that the nuncio has decided not to give any interviews at
present. This is possibly related to the flood of stories in the Russian press
about a possible papal visit to Russia and a possible meeting between Pope
John Paul II and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch ALEKSII.
However, Father Kovalevsky told Keston that the nuncio knows nothing
concrete about a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch. `It is possible
that the Patriarch's words during his visit to Japan that he does not exclude the
possibility of a meeting with the Pope were taken too literally,' Father
Kovalevsky told Keston. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.