Vatican, Russian church in battle of faiths

Orthodox leaders resent Catholic gains

February 19, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The bitter argument that erupted in public last week between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church comes down to this: Who has the right to save Vitaly Kulyagin's soul?

He is a 39-year-old aerospace engineer dressed in jeans and a fleece jacket, his brown hair tied in a tidy bun. He spoke about his reasons for embracing Roman Catholicism instead of the Orthodox Church, the faith of his Russian ancestors.

"To my mind, the Catholic religion is the most progressive," Kulyagin said during a break from his religious studies at the Immaculate Conception Church, north of central Moscow. "It is the most mobile, it has not stopped developing. To my mind, the Orthodox Church stopped developing in the 15th century."

That's the kind of talk that Russia's native church doesn't want to hear. For years, Orthodox officials have accused the Vatican of aggressively seeking converts in the former Soviet Union. Last week the Vatican seemed to confirm the Orthodox hierarchy's suspicions by announcing the creation of four full-fledged dioceses in Russia. That decision will give more formal status to Catholic bishops in Moscow and three other cities.

Patriarch Alexy II and his church's Holy Synod denounced the decision as "an unfriendly act" intended to lay "claim to the flock of all the Russian people, who are culturally, spiritually and historically the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church." In other words, they accused Catholic leaders of trying to poach Russian souls.

One of those souls belongs to Kulyagin. After much thought over a decade, the former atheist decided to become a Catholic. He and about 130 other Russians are enrolled in religious training courses at Immaculate Conception, one of two active Catholic churches in Moscow. The converts expect to be baptized by summer.

As for the Orthodox Church's claim to be Kulyagin's only legitimate spiritual home, he has a different view: "I am a Russian, but I am free to choose for myself."

Catholic officials here say the creation of dioceses is an administrative step to make it easier to serve parishioners, not recruit new Catholics. They point out that fewer than 1 percent of Russia's residents are Catholic, and more than 50 percent are Orthodox. "We are a minority in Russia, and we will continue to be a minority in Russia, but we want to take care of the Catholics who live in Russia," said the Rev. Igor Kowalewski, a church spokesman.

The Roman Catholic Church has attracted a steady stream of new parishioners since the fall of the Soviet Union. A century ago, Catholics in Russia numbered about 30,000. There might be 1.3 million now. At least some of them are ethnic Russians looking for an alternative to the faith of their fathers.

Catholic leaders say they first try to persuade Russians to consider joining the Orthodox faith. But they do not turn away nonmembers like Kulyagin who are determined to be baptized as Catholics.

For some young Russians, the Roman Catholic Church represents a clean break with the Soviet past. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Russian Catholics fiercely resisted state control and paid a heavy price. Catholicism was almost wiped out by Stalin -- most churches were closed or forcibly converted to Orthodox churches. Thousands of Catholics were shot, beaten or starved to death for their faith. Thousands more were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

Klementina Klimova, 66, recalls the KGB arresting the priest of her church in central Ukraine in the 1940s. He was never seen again. At the same time, police rounded up about 160 Catholic men and took them to the cathedral's basement, which was turned into a makeshift prison. The men were beaten, interrogated and starved, she said. Within a few weeks, all were dead. The cathedral was turned over to the Orthodox Church.

When the Orthodox priest arrived, Klimova said, he asked some of the parishioners to help him clean the basement. They found the remains of 12 people, left behind by the security forces. "I remember the 12 coffins, newly made," said Klimova, who lives in Moscow and attends services at Immaculate Conception. "The priest said they were people murdered by fascists. But they were not."

Soviet authorities in Moscow seized two of the city's three churches, turning one into a cinema and converting the 3,000-capacity Immaculate Conception church first into temporary housing, later into a school, then a laboratory and finally a four-story factory loft building.

The domed Church of St. Louis of France, near KGB headquarters, was the only Catholic church in Moscow to remain open after 1937, church officials say. But state security agents watched who came and went and tried to recruit informants in the congregation. The agency eventually installed cameras at the entrances.

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