Catholics Eager to Smooth Ties

APArchbishop Kondrusiewicz said the Catholic Church has the Kremlin's support.
The leader of Russia's Catholics, anxious and sleep-deprived after a harrowing few weeks, is starting to detect progress in his latest struggle with the influential and irate Russian Orthodox Church.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz was invited to the Kremlin on Thursday -- the Russian leadership's first positive overture toward Catholics since the Vatican upgraded its Russian presence to full-fledged dioceses on Feb. 11. And on Saturday, the pope -- whose long-standing bid to visit Russia has been persistently rebuffed by Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II -- will lead Russian Catholics in prayer via a video link.

The Vatican's Feb. 11 decision met with impassioned opposition from the Orthodox Church, which accused Catholics of poaching converts on Orthodox territory and threatening its own resurrection efforts after decades of state-sponsored atheism.

"It's all a misunderstanding," Kondrusiewicz, a Pole born in Belarus, said in an interview Thursday. "A reaction was to be expected. But I didn't think it would be so strong."

He was encouraged after his Kremlin meeting with the deputy head of the president's domestic policy department. "I feel we have the full support of the presidential administration," Kondrusiewicz said.

The pope is intent on reaching out to Russia's 600,000 Catholics, a tiny minority in a nation of 144 million where two-thirds of the population consider themselves Orthodox.

Parishioners have come to Kondrusiewicz in tears recently, complaining that the indignant rhetoric by Orthodox leaders on national newscasts since Feb. 11 has made them afraid to practice their faith.

The stocky, excitable archbishop has himself spent these 17 days deflecting criticism and trying to salvage conciliation efforts.

"We need to talk and keep talking, on the highest levels," he said.

Orthodox leaders don't see it that way. Metropolitan Kirill, the church's chief of foreign relations, said contacts with papal representatives could be suspended because of the Vatican decision, and the Orthodox Church later refused to receive a Vatican envoy.

Kondrusiewicz would not say why the Vatican chose this month to elevate its apostolic administrations to dioceses.

Russian media have speculated that after years of deadlock, the Vatican has given up hope of a papal visit to Russia anytime soon and decided to abandon its conciliatory stance toward the Orthodox Church.

Other analysts, including Britain's Keston Institute, suggest the Vatican was encouraged by President Vladimir Putin's recent warm words toward the pope and decided that the westward-looking Kremlin is distancing itself from Orthodox stalwarts, making it a safe time to expand the Catholic presence. Putin said he was eager to invite John Paul to Moscow soon, but added that the visit would hinge on a Vatican-Orthodox settlement.

Kondrusiewicz gave no credence to either theory. "The time had come, that's all," he said.

The Catholic Church establishes apostolic administrations only in "extreme situations" such as the volatile period around the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and they are meant to be temporary, he said.

Kondrusiewicz insisted that most Russians have "no problem" with Catholics and that Catholics aren't proselytizing in Russia.

Kondrusiewicz, 56, has faced discrimination for his beliefs since his teenage years. He abandoned his studies at a teacher's institute in western Belarus after local newspapers expressed alarm that a future Soviet educator regularly attended Catholic Mass. He fled to the more liberal Leningrad, where he received an engineering degree, before entering a Lithuanian seminary at age 30.