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RUSSIA: GOVERNMENT AND CHURCH AT ODDS OVER PAPAL VISIT
(12 February 2002, Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service)
While government representatives have in recent weeks made their warmest overtures yet regarding a papal visit to Russia, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate are raising ever sterner objections.
13.02.2002 (16:17) // Religious Information Service of Ukraine
Source: Keston Institute http://www.keston.org
"We won't have to wait much longer before that visit takes place," Russian Ambassador to the Holy See, Vitali Litvin, maintained in a Catholic World News service report on 14 December. Stressing that he was not responsible for finding a solution to those disagreements between the two Churches which the Moscow Patriarchate insists must be eliminated before a papal visit to Russia can take place, Litvin nevertheless claimed that he foresaw a resolution to one of the main impediments - Orthodox allegations of proselytism by Catholics in Russia.
In a 14 January interview in Moscow with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, President Vladimir Putin drew attention to the Slavic roots shared by Russians and Polish Pope John Paul II rather than to the centuries of mistrust between the two nations: "We [Russians] also have a feeling of pride that a representative of the Slavic peoples became pope." Regarding the possibility of a papal visit, Putin claimed to be ready to invite the pope to Moscow "at any moment," but pointed out that John Paul II himself wished a papal visit "to be of full value." According to the Russian president, this entailed the prior resumption of full relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches.
Chancellor of the Apostolic Administration for Catholics of Northern European Russia, Fr Igor Kovalevsky explained to Keston News Service on 31 January that the pope would indeed only visit Russia on receipt of both a government invitation and, at the very least, the consent of Patriarch Alexis II - it would not be viable for him to visit solely in his capacity as Vatican head of state.
In his Gazeta Wyborcza interview, Putin also commented that - "unfortunately" - the crucial resumption of full relations between the two Churches did not depend on him. This much was widely reported by the Russian press. Absent, however, from the official transcript of the interview issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry information and press department on 16 January - and hence from Russian press reports – were Putin's most positive statements regarding a papal visit.
Reported in Gazeta Wyborcza and by the western media was the Polish newspaper's question as to whether Russia would welcome the pope within Putin's term of office. "Yes, and that is a dear hope," replied the Russian president. "I repeat, it gives rise to even a certain feeling of pride." Notwithstanding his admission that relations between the two Churches did not depend on him, Putin also added that he was endeavouring "to help and encourage fully-fledged relations" between them.
Evidently commenting on those of Putin's statements relayed by the Russian media, Patriarch Alexis on 18 January reportedly described his reference to the dependence of a papal visit upon an invitation by the Russian Orthodox Church as "wise." The president's stance towards a papal visit remained unchanged, the patriarch maintained.
Subsequently, however, Moscow Patriarchate representatives' statements concerning a possible papal visit to Russia took a brusquer turn. According to Catholic news sources, Pope John Paul II reiterated his desire to visit Russia to the Moscow Patriarchate delegation at the Vatican's Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on 24 January. Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Kerch reportedly replied to the pope that relations between the Churches were "highly unsatisfactory," and that a meeting between their leaders could only take place after resolving the problem of "proselytism in all its forms." In an interview on 25 January with the news agency Agence France Presse, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad similarly spoke of the necessity for the Catholic Church in Russia "to pass from proselytism to bilateral and multilateral co- operation." However, his qualifications of this statement were more forthright: "We are convinced that a Russian Catholic Church is something with no future or prospects. There is no need to profess the Catholic faith here, but to work with the Orthodox Church to reinforce Christian values."
Fr Igor Kovalevsky told Keston that Putin's statements about a possible papal visit came as a welcome surprise to the Catholic Church in Russia. However, he added that there was a tendency for the media to hype the issue, and considered it too early to draw conclusions.
One Catholic source in Moscow recently commented to Keston that the Russian government and Orthodox Church could be sending conflicting messages intentionally: "This is consistent with both Russian government and Russian Orthodox policy." Another possibility might be that the Moscow Patriarchate's increasing intransigence towards a papal visit is providing a useful backdrop against which the Russian government stands out in relief as conciliatory and pro-western. According to Ambassador Litvin, the events of 11 September have shocked the international community and reminded Russians of the importance of unity, and a papal visit to Russia "would be an important signal of such unity."