#8 - JRL 7023
National Post (Canda)
January 17, 2003
Catholic Russians fear renewed oppression by the Kremlin
Visas revoked: Orthodox Church accuses priests of proselytizing
By Matthew Fisher
MOSCOW - When she was baptized as a Roman Catholic 15 years ago, Tatyana Titova was so terrified of retribution from the Communist authorities that she went to Lithuania for the ceremony.
Thanks to perestroika and glasnost, Ms. Titova now worships openly in a small church in the shadow of the former KGB's infamous Lubyanka headquarters in Moscow.
But in common with other Russian Catholics, after a decade of religious freedom, she fears tougher days lie ahead.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which had its own problems when all religions were ruthlessly suppressed during the Soviet era, now enjoys the backing of the Kremlin and is undergoing a renaissance.
However, its leader, Patriarch Alexei II, is worried that other religions are attempting to win over Orthodox converts. He has accused Roman Catholic priests of proselytizing in Russia.
In what may be a related development, Russia recently revoked the visas of a Roman Catholic bishop and several European priests. The priests found out they were no longer welcome when they tried to re-enter the country from abroad.
"Explanations are not given. They just say it is a government's right to deny entry to their territory," said Ms. Titova, a former representative of the Keston Institute, a British-based organization that monitors religious freedom in communist and post-communist countries.
"I believe the authorities are afraid of religion getting mixed in with politics, but they do not say so directly."
The dispute reached the point last week where Pope John Paul II openly complained about the expulsions.
The pontiff, who has often said one of his remaining ambitions is to visit Russia, told diplomats at the Vatican he was distressed at "the plight of Catholic communities in the Russian Federation, which for months now have seen some of their pastors prevented from returning to them."
He said the Vatican expects Russia to make "concrete decisions which will put an end to the crisis."
The expulsions directly affect Russian Catholics, Ms. Titova said, because "without priests, we will have no way to practise our faith."
There are about 250 Catholic priests in Russia. More than 90% of them are foreigners and all depend on visas that are renewed annually.
Although upset that fellow priests have been prevented from continuing their work, Father Michael Ryan, an Anglo-Irish Marist priest assigned to one of Moscow's two Catholic churches, said it was too early to view what was happening as a campaign against Catholicism in Russia.
"There is a genuine wish here to protect the country," Fr. Ryan said.
"Given the international fear of terrorism, there is a general tightening up on entry to countries all around the world. People are changing laws everywhere to monitor unusual characters. In Russia, that ties in with a fear of foreigners as spies."
Representatives of other religions and religious groups, including Mormons, Pentecostals, Muslims, Buddhists and even the Salvation Army, have sometimes had trouble in recent years, but mostly at the local or regional level.
Other foreigners who came to Russia partly to impart Western values, such as U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, the AFL-CIO's Moscow representative and human rights monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have also had their visas revoked since last summer.
Most, like the priests, found out they were no longer welcome only when their planes landed after trips abroad.
The head of the FSB, the security service once known as the KGB, said last month he thought some of the Peace Corps workers were spies. He accused them of collecting economic data and political information.
Only two foreign religious workers were denied visas to enter Russia in 1997, according to the Slavic Centre of Law and Justice. Last year, the number had grown to about 20.
"The figures speak for themselves. It is gradually getting more and more difficult to get visas for religious purposes," said Tatyana Tomiyeva, an official at the centre.
"We do not suffer persecution," said Ms. Tomiyeva, a Catholic. "But there is pressure supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is thoroughly anti-Catholic."
It is very much a David and Goliath struggle.
More than 100 million of Russia's 143 million people are nominally Orthodox, although the number of firm believers is probably much smaller. During Soviet times, it was the legendary babushkas, or grandmothers, who kept the Orthodox beliefs alive. Today, they remain its most devoted adherents.
The Catholic Church in Russia claims it has between 600,000 and one million followers. Again, the real figure is probably much lower. Russia also has about 25 million Muslims and several million Jews.