Vatican-Moscow relations improving

Newsroom, 2 June 2000

The increasing visibility of the Roman Catholic church in Russia is posing a challenge to the traditionally Orthodox country amid signs of an improving relationship between Moscow and the Vatican.

A May 28 parade through Russia's capital city by hundreds of Catholics with banners and crucifixes -- part of the church's millenarian celebration -- elicited mixed reviews from Muscovites. "For some it was a direct challenge to the Orthodox, since prior to that only Russian Orthodox were allowed religious processions in Moscow," said Alexander Soldatov, religion correspondent for the daily English-language Moscow News. "For others it's a sign of improving Russia's religious liberties policy."

A new Russian law on religion has raised tensions because it appears to favor the Orthodox Church over other Christian confessions. The Vatican, the United States, and human rights groups have branded the law discriminatory. The Orthodox Church, however, undergoing a revival after decades of persecution, resents what it sees as efforts to poach members from congregations in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics. Ukraine has been an especially sore spot, with its more than 5 million eastern-rite Catholics.

Proselytizing, perhaps more than any other issue, has stood in the way of a papal visit to Russia. During his 21-year pontificate, John Paul II has made 92 journeys outside Italy to 123 countries, but never to Russia. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II has said there is no point in his meeting the pope until issues such as proselytizing have been resolved. A planned meeting in Austria in 1997 collapsed after the Orthodox leader backed out. Since then, John Paul has traveled to two traditionally Orthodox countries, Romania and Georgia. They were the first papal visits to Orthodox nations since the "Great Schism" into Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.

Yet recently Alexy has toned down considerably his anti-Catholic rhetoric and made significant overtures to the Vatican. On May 18 he sent a message to John Paul congratulating the pope on his 80th birthday, and calling for better ties between their rival churches in the third Christian millennium. "Your long service as head of the Roman Catholic Church has brought you well-deserved recognition among the Christians of many countries," Alexy wrote to the pope. "I express the hope that the problems existing between our churches can be successfully overcome through joint efforts and that the new millennium will become a time for healing the rifts and divisions between the churches of the East and the West."

Russian political analysts suggest that Alexy's change of heart toward the pope was ordered from the Kremlin. Newly-elected President Vladimir Putin has a pragmatic attitude towards religion and sees the pope as a remedy for healing Russia's deteriorating relations with the West, the analysts say. Since the reforms of Tsar Peter the Great in the 17th century, the Russian Orthodox Church largely has been dependent on the central government and traditionally has placed its blessing any of the governing ruler's initiatives.

Putin also sent his congratulations to the Polish-born pontiff. Yakov Krotov, a renowned Russian church historian, commented to Newsroom that it is "symbolic and ironic that Putin, a former KGB spy, congratulates the Pope, whose moral stance contributed to the fall of Moscow’s atheistic Soviet empire a decade ago."

Putin was baptized as a baby into the Orthodox Church, wears a crucifix given to him by his mother, and dutifully attends important church celebrations like Easter. On Monday Putin will travel to Rome where a meeting with the pope is expected on Tuesday. Sources close to the Moscow Patriarchy report that Putin will bring the pope an invitation from Patriarch Alexy.


WASHINGTON, June 5 (Itar-Tass) - The Washington Post newspaper, which published an interview with Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, reported on  Sunday that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is due to arrive in Italy on  Monday, will visit the Vatican and will possibly extend an invitation to Pope John Paul  II to visit Russia.

Putin is to be received in audience by the Pontiff in the library of  the Papal Palace on Monday. It is noteworthy that Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All  Russia, who was in Petrozavodsk on Sunday, stated that he did not rule out his  meeting with the Head of the Roman Catholic Church in the foreseeable future.


MOSCOW, June 4 (AFP) - The head of Russia's Orthodox Church,  Patriarch Alexis II, did not rule out Sunday a meeting with Pope John  Paul II, during a press conference reported by the Interfax news  agency.

"Such a meeting should not take place just before the television  cameras, it must be prepared and give concrete results," he said.

He implied that if a meeting did take place a declaration would be  signed to "raise the questions which impede the development of  relations" between Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholicism.

The patriarch's statement marks a significant shift in the position  of Russia's Orthodox Church. It came on the eve of a meeting between  Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope John Paul in Rome.


MOSCOW, June 5 (Itar-Tass) - Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All  Russia did not rule out a meeting with Pope John Paul II "in the foreseeable future".

He believes it should "bring a concrete positive result and improve  relations between the Churches rather than be just a meeting before cameras".

Alexy II told Itar-Tass on Monday that proselytising -- that is  conversion of people living in traditional Orthodox areas, including in Western Ukraine  into another faith -- is the main obstacles to the development of relations between the  Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican.

The patriarch expressed the hope that the Vatican will respect the  canonical rights of the Moscow Patriarchate which has been operating in these areas for hundreds of years.

"This problem is first of all the question of principles of Christian  morale and ethics of mutual respect", he said.

In 1997, the leaders of the two Churches were expected to sign a declaration condemning the practice of prozelitising. However, the meeting was  cancelled after the Vatican had refused to include this provision into the document.

(posted 5 June 2000)