The BBC, Russia & The CatholicChurch: 12 Years later

Monday, February 9, 1998 Published at 20:00 GMT

World: Analysis

Growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church


Russian Orthodox Church: making new alliances

Pope John Paul II and the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, have held talks at the Vatican, which were described as “extremely cordial.” But relations remain tense following the passing of a law last year in Russia restricting the freedom of many Christian denominations – including Roman Catholic orders. As Alan Little reports from Moscow, reconciliation is still a far-off dream.

Russian Orthodox Church: at odds with Vatican for 1000 years

In Russia, the autocratic impulse runs deep. It is far older than Communism. And the Russian Orthodox Church lies at the heart of the autocratic tradition: its defender and its beneficiary. It bolstered the Tsarist autocracy and was rewarded. It struck deals with the Communists and was rewarded. Now, in the new Russia, it is making new alliances.

Larry Uzell, of the independent religious freedom watchdog, The Keston Institute:

“The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has decided, for reasons best known to themselves, that the path to political power, the path to influence, to success – and, I’m afraid, also the path to money – is to work hand-in-glove with the extreme ultra-nationalists in Russian politics.”

Roman Catholics: restricted by Russian law

A new law, signed by President Yeltsin late last year, grants wide-ranging religious freedoms to Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. But its effect will severely restrict many Christian denominations – including Roman Catholic orders.

Father Vadim is one of a handful of Russian Catholic priests whose religious freedom is now compromised by legalised Orthodox supremacy.

“For some of my Orthodox friends, I am a sort of Judas. To be Russian and to be Catholic – it’s a betrayal. They’re saying: ‘You came to Russia to make it Catholic’. No, absolutely not. We try in all ways to behave ourselves very delicately.”

Zagorsk seminary: recruits next generation of priests

In the stark, cloistered beauty of Zagorsk – a snow-covered 15th century seminary near Moscow that the Soviets used as a hospital – Orthodoxy recruits priests for the next generation.

Hundreds of young men sit beneath the blue-and-gold onion domes and recite the eight harmonies of the Orthodox rite, before ordination, when they will spread themselves throughout the vastness of Russia and lead their flocks in the same lovely, limited strains.

Young men recite the eight harmonies of the Orthodox rite

The spokesman for the Moscow patriarchy, Father Hilarion, rejects Catholic criticism and defends the Orthodox Church’s place at the centre of Russia’s identity.

“The only thing which we are unhappy about is that some Christian confessions – and especially some new religious movements – are using this situation in order to achieve their own ends. And they are proselytising in what we understand to be our own religious territory.”


Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity dates from 1054

The schism between Eastern and Western Christianity dates from 1054, when the Constantinople patriarch refused to accept papal supremacy. Patriarch Alexei, the head of the Church in Russia, is heir to that tradition. Ecumenicalism is profoundly unpopular here. President Yeltsin’s visit to Pope John Paul will not be reciprocated. The Roman Pontiff will not celebrate Mass in Russia, though it has been one of his life’s ambitions to do so.

Larry Uzell again:

“The Patriarch has the Pope’s number . He has figured out that this particular Pope has a romantic dream, of reunion between East and West and that the Pope thinks that that reunion is achievable – in the very near term, perhaps within his own lifetime. And the Patriarch has been extraordinarily skilful at playing on that desire, in order to get concessions from the Catholics.”

Russia is still in transition. And Russians are fond of saying that they know what they’re in transition from but not what they’re in transition to. Whatever the destination, the Russian Orthodox Church, which thrived under Tsarism and survived under Communism, is helping to shape the new Russia. And its impulse towards authoritarianism, to exclusivity, to intolerance, is undiminished.


12 years later I am wondering:

  • How much has changed?
  • Have we seen much improvement?
  • The position of the Russian Orthodox is secure – the Patriarch is a former agent/informant of the KGB (codename Drozdov – “Blackbird”) serving under Putin – the former head of the KGB… Why are they still so resistent to the Catholic Church taking care of the 600,000 Catholics who are in Russia today (versus the 3 million there in 1917!)?





2 Responses to The BBC, Russia & The CatholicChurch: 12 Years later

  1. Dr. Acula says:

    Since Muscovy was not founded until 1147, only really broke with Rome in 1453, and became a Patriarchate in 1589. How can the article say that Moscow and Rome have been separated for 1000 years?

  2. DA – your thinking on this matter resonates with me and I agree…

    That as the case may be, some of the objections and difficulties being talked about 12 years ago remain – efforts have been made in Russia and Belorussia to stymie efforts of the Catholic Church to take care of Catholics.

    Given all the challenges facing the Russian people – abortion, rising drug problems, corruption, pornography, prostitution, de-population… The measures taken against the Catholic Church seem at the very least odd. The Catholic Church taking care of its 600,000 faithful in Russia helping them to be good Catholics… well that seems to be the least of the Patriarch’s problems in a land where there are now 4M baptists and the Islamic population is rising.

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