Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Catholics Find Old Problems in New Russia

Despite the end of Soviet-style persecution, the Roman Catholic Church is still widely obstructed by officialdom in Russia, and its development is held back by a legacy of fear, the leader of European Russia's Roman Catholics said Monday.

"It's very hard to get our property back, very difficult to get permission for the construction of a cathedral, sometimes taking years," Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the apostolic administrator for European Russia's estimated 300,000 Roman Catholics, said at a news conference.

He cited the example of the construction of the Catholic cathedral in Saratov, work on which has only just been authorized after five years of negotiation with the local authorities.

"Sometimes local authorities give permission and then suddenly retract it," he said.

Russia's new law on religion, ostensibly aimed at restricting extremist sects and cults, is compounding the church's difficulties, he said.

"With so much talk about sects, the situation today can make it very difficult to carry out our work," said Kondrusiewicz.

Before the Russian Revolution about half a million Catholics worshiped in 156 parishes across the country. By the 1930s religious persecution under the Soviets had reduced this to just 2 parishes in Moscow and St. Petersburg and driven much Christian worship underground. Many priests were sent to labor camps and church property was seized by the state.

Today there are 96 parishes in Russia, compared to just six when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Most of the parishes are in cities, and growth of congregations in the countryside is hindered because potential parishioners are still hesitant to worship actively, said Kondrusiewicz.

"Many of them remember [the persecution] that went on before and are afraid to join congregations," he said.

Of the 114 priests now working in Russia, only six have Russian passports. Catholic priests from other countries have often experienced problems obtaining visas to work in Russia, said church officials.

Another great concern is the effect the new law on freedom of religion will have on the Roman Catholic Church and other minority religious organizations in Russia, said Kondrusiewicz.

Passed in July, the law attributes a leading role to the Russian Orthodox Church. After criticism by Russia's minority churches and the West the law was made slightly less restrictive, but church leaders are concerned that in practice the law will restrict their development.

Areas of contention include the stipulation that religious groups must exist for fifteen years before they enjoy full legal rights. This is theoretically aimed at restricting the growth of cults, but Roman Catholic officials say that this will be a major obstacle in their attempts to gain recognition for monastic orders which were shut down during Communist rule.

Kondrusiewicz said the law, which takes effect Dec. 31, 1999, has already caused relations between confessions, particularly with the Orthodox Church, to stagnate since it was adopted.

"Instead of uniting society, the adoption of the law is dividing it," he said.