Catholic-Orthodox Tensions Resurface in Russia

Ultranationalist lawmaker Alexei Mitrofanov created a stir last week by advocating restrictions on Russian media coverage of Pope John Paul II's death and funeral.

The initiative won the backing of 98 deputies in the State Duma -- far short of the needed votes, but a sign of how relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches are still troubled despite the late pontiff's deep desire for reconciliation.

In recent years, the conflict between the two churches has centered on the resurgent Orthodox Church's fears for its own identity and complaints about what it sees as Catholic efforts to proselytize its followers.

John Paul made some progress toward better ties with branches of the Orthodox Church outside Russia, visiting Romania, Georgia, Greece, Ukraine and Bulgaria during the later years of his 26 1/2-year papacy. In Athens in 2001, he won goodwill with his public call that God forgive any sins Catholics committed "by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters."

But he was never able to visit Russia, largely because of opposition from Patriarch Alexy II, who called the two churches' estrangement a "religious war."

Proselytism by any religion is sensitive because of Russia's traditional attachment to Orthodoxy, explained Alexander Chuyev, vice chairman of the Duma's Committee on Public and Religious Organizations.

"This Orthodox faith is not only part of our history, culture and traditions," he said. "It has become an inseparable part of other cultural phenomena, like architecture, literature, the lifestyle in general."

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Orthodox Church's Moscow patriarchy, said that for the two churches to build cooperative relations, "we need to stop competition in the missionary field."

"After the breakdown of the Soviet Union," he said, "a great number of people in the Roman Catholic Church decided that was the moment when it was possible to conquer these big territories and huge populations of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

"Many Orthodox people at that moment felt Roman Catholics were enemies," he said. "What we hope for is, in the future, that the Roman Catholic Church will behave in a truly brotherly manner toward the Orthodox."

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, president of the Russian Catholic Bishops' Conference, agreed that the two churches needed to solve "the problem of proselytizing," but described it in a different way: The Catholic Church in Russia is not proselytizing, he said, but both churches should recognize people's right "to choose their religion."

Immediately after John Paul's death, Alexy II made a gesture of goodwill in a message to the Vatican expressing his "profound condolences." But he also alluded to the tensions.

"I hope that a new period in the life of the Roman Catholic Church will help to renew the relations of mutual respect and brotherly Christian love between our churches."

The Russian Orthodox Church was represented at last Friday's funeral by Metropolitan Kirill, its foreign relations chief. Throughout the week, the pontiff's passing was given heavy coverage on Russian news programs, but no major station carried the funeral service live.

For Mitrofanov, an LDPR State Duma deputy, the coverage was too much.

"After all, we are an Orthodox country," he said in televised remarks. "Our media's open and active participation in the Vatican's propaganda effort -- when all day long we are being told about Vatican practices and traditions, about what is happening there and how -- is wrong. One should exercise more caution."

Mitrofanov's stance was far from universal and drew sharp criticism, with Duma Deputy Valery Komissarov warning that the proposal to restrict coverage could "seriously insult" Catholics around the world.

Anton Orekh, a commentator on Ekho Moskvy radio, used sharper language.

"The greatest of our contemporaries has died," he said. "It will not be an exaggeration to say that he was the last man who could be called a moral, ethical and spiritual example for the whole of mankind, whatever one's religion is and whether one believes in God at all. ... Let us at least refrain from behaving like idiots and disgracing ourselves before the world, staging discussions of idiotic initiatives like Mitrofanov's."

Many Russian Orthodox believers were open to the late pontiff's message of reconciliation. Among them is Yelena Volkova, who was preparing to light candles in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral when she was asked about the pope's passing.

"He was a great person for all of us," she replied.

"I'm very sorry that the pope didn't manage to come to Russia," added her husband, Alexander Volkov. "The pope could have been a great ambassador of peace."

But others fear what the possible spread of Catholicism could do to Russian self-identity.

"There exist slight differences between our customs and traditions and those of the Catholic faith," said Andrei Morozov, 55, a doctor and regular churchgoer. "It is these little differences which make us unique and help us realize ourselves as a unique nation. Look, we are already wearing jeans, drinking Pepsi Cola and eating hamburgers, and we even send St. Valentine's Day cards to each other."

The division deeply troubled John Paul. Being Polish may have given him a greater interest in establishing ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, but it also complicated those relations.

"His being a Slav and coming from Poland only aggravated the situation and the controversies between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church," said Alexander Shchipkov, a religion analyst in Moscow. "All the centuries-long political disputes between Russia and Poland were interwoven into purely religious affairs. If the pope had not been a Pole, maybe the dialogue between the two churches would have progressed much faster."

Some Russian Orthodox believers think a great deal of unity may not be so desirable.

"We must stay unique," Morozov said. "We must have our own way of doing things to survive. That is why I am against the Catholic Church spreading its influence over our Orthodox nation. I am proud and happy that for us Christmas falls on a different day, and that the Easter bunny doesn't exist here at all. Let it stay that way."