Pope reached out to Russians

Chance fades to mend rift with Orthodox church

`We must work to solve them'

End Of A Papacy

April 02, 2005|By COX NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW - Throughout his reign, Pope John Paul II reached out to Jews, Muslims and other Christian denominations. But unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church leaves his agenda incomplete.

Because of objections from Moscow, he never realized his dream to visit Russia and mend a centuries-old rift.

The Russian Orthodox Church accuses the Roman Catholic Church of poaching on its traditional territory by sending foreign Catholic priests into Russia and other former Soviet republics to proselytize.

The leader of the 76 million member Russian church, Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, has refused to welcome a visit by the pope despite recent attempts by both sides to ease the tension.

"There have been small steps of improvement in our relations, but the problems are deep and we must work to solve them," said Igor Kovalevsky, the general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia.

Last year, the pope sent a peace offering to Moscow when he returned an 18th-century reproduction of the revered "Mother of God of Kazan." The icon had been smuggled out of Russia after the 1917 Russian Revolution and previously hung in the pope's private chapel.

When the 84-year-old pope was hospitalized in February, Alexy sent a letter of "brotherly prayer" and expressed wishes for the pope's speedy recovery.

The two churches have formed a working group to discuss their differences. But the Russian church remains adamant that it will not welcome the head of the 1.1 billion member Roman Catholic Church until the Vatican renounces any efforts to expand in Russian Orthodox areas in eastern Europe and Asia.

"All these friendly acts are appreciated, but they don't touch at the core of the problem," said Igor Vyzhanov, the acting secretary for Inter-Christian Affairs at the Moscow Patriarchate. "What we need now is to see concrete steps from the Catholic Church to show us and the world that they are serious about improving our relations."

Bad relations between the Vatican and the Russian church date to the Great Schism of 1054, when Catholic and Orthodox churches split after a dispute over papal authority.

Following the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the relationship worsened. Russia's new developing democracy promoted freedom of religion after 70 years of state-sponsored atheism.

Missionaries from a broad range of religions began making trips across Russia, seeking new believers and reaching out to those who were previously suppressed by the communist regime.

With few native Russian Catholic priests to turn to, the Roman Catholics sent in clergy from Italy, Poland and other nationalities to serve a growing number of parishes in Russia. There are more than 500,000 Roman Catholics in Russia, less than 1 percent of the country's 143 million population.

The Russian church saw the move as an act of aggression and responded by successfully urging the government to deny visas to visiting Catholic bishops. In 2002, the Russian parliament proposed a law to ban the Catholic Church in Russia, but the bill was quickly rejected.

Vyzhanov accused some Catholic priests of playing politics in Russia by trying to weaken the influence of the Moscow-based church.

"For some of the foreign priests from countries with a history with Russia, like Poland, they see it as a sort of revenge. This is not a official Vatican position, but it's what happens once they arrive," Vyzhanov said. Poland, with a large Catholic population, was a Soviet satellite until the fall of communism.

The Catholic Church says the foreign priests are simply serving the needs of the small Catholic congregation.

Most of Russia's population claims to be Orthodox believers, and in recent years the Kremlin has used the religion to promote patriotic, pro-Slavic sentiment. Russian President Vladimir Putin is often shown in church services on state-run television and in meetings with Alexy.

When communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, the pope was credited with playing an important role by throwing his support behind the Solidarity movement in his native Poland. He also recently made groundbreaking visits to mostly Orthodox countries such as Greece and Russia's ethnically close, southern neighbor, Ukraine.

The visit to Ukraine stirred up more tension as the Moscow Patriarch maintains close ties with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

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