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As Russians and Romans spat, sects surge.

OXFORD, England -- Relations between the Moscow patriarchate and the Catholic church have been tense since the Vatican appointed three "apostolic administrators" for the vast territories of Russia in March 1991.

Patriarch Alexsie refused to send delegates to the Eurosynod of December 1991 and pointedly let it be known he did not want Pope John Paul in Russia while extending an invitation to George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury.

Alexsei complained of Catholic missionary aggressiveness, unfair proselytism and convert-rustling. This was no way to treat a "sister church," he declared.

Following the instructions of Pope John Paul, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, apostolic administrator for European Russia, based in Moscow, has been as irenic as can be.

In a March 3 lecture in Washington, Kondrusiewicz laid the blame for his myriad difficulties at the door of "the same persons who used to control religion," that is the KGB.

Kondrusiewicz warned against articles 11 and 18 of the new legislation proposed by a commission of the Russian Parliament last December. This makes it especially difficult for religious communities to be registered if their headquarters is abroad. So worried was John Paul by these developments that he has completely reorganized the Vatican's advisory body on Russian affairs.

In February, the motu proprio Europeae Orientalis scrapped the old four-person Pontifical Commission for Russia, which in one from or another had existed since 1930, replacing it with the Permanent Inter-dicasterial Commission for the church in Eastern Europe.

The function of the new commission is threefold: to help Catholic communities consolidate after years of persecution; to oversee relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and other Oriental churches; to promote and coordinate the activities of Catholic groups and institutions already at work in these regions.

The fact taht such a new commission was needed indicates that too many cooks have been spoiling the borscht. The uncoordinated efforts of movements like Aid to the Church in Need, the Neo-Catechumenate, not only mention the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans and the pontifical aid operation, Caritas, have led to overlap and confusion.

That, at least, is the theory. The relationship between the charitable, pastoral and theological aspects of work in Russia needs clarifying.

As a first step, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, directed by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, held a March meeting of 32 Catholic relief organizations that have embryonic structures in the republics of the Former Soviet Union. Also on hand were Archbishops Francesco Colasuonno and Antonio Franco, respectively nuncios to Russia and Ukraine.

Two main conclusions emerged. The first aim should be to strengthen the structures of the local churches so that they can develop their "witness to charity." The second is the spiritual formation of all concerned so that "the work goes ahead according to ecumenical criteria in words, in publications and in action."

John paul is said to be worried about the quality of the advice he has been receiving and is penning an encyclical on the theme of "sister churches." "The last thing we want on this subject," said one Moscow-watcher, "is more words."

The flood of words has been enough to relaunch the battleship "Potemkin." However, John Paul is said to be dissatisfied with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's 1992 letter on communication.

Patriarch Alexsei, along with other ecumenical partners, objected to it on the grounds that it rendered inoperative the concept of sister churches -- the key to the dialogue with the Russian Orthodox. "Cardinal Ratzinger is entitled to his personal opinion," John Paul reportedly remarked. An encyclical on sister churches that "went beyond" what Ratzinger said last year -- he would not, of course, be formally disavowed -- would help.

Alexsei offered an olive branch in response to the new commission. While repeating his objections to proselytism in general, he thanked the Caritas organizations of the Italian dioceses of Milan, Trent and Verona, which "without any preconditions and without proselytism have offered generous and disinterested assitance, as one does to a sister church." This offers a glimpse of a possible way forward in a constantly fluctuating situation.

These local churches have shown how a sister church should behave. A new perception may be emerging. Alexsie has to talk tough to reassure the conservative nationalists in his own synod. He has already lost the Western Ukraine to the resurgent Catholic Ukrainian Church -- so that is less of a bone of contention with the Catholic church.

In Russia, the real threat to the Orthodox Church comes not from Roman Catholic proselytism so much as from the well-heeled and technologically efficient fundamentalist sects that are now broadcasting 24 hours a day in most of the republics of the ex-Soviet Union.

The Fuller Theological Seminary of Pasadena, Calif., the most important fundamentalist college in the word, has opened a permanent branch in Russia.

Said Professor Gordon Melton of the University of California at a recent meeting at the London School of Economics, "Co-mission, a network of Christian organizations headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., has established a five-year plan to place a knowledgeable Christian teacher in every public school in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)."

These fundamentalist groups have no roots in Russia, could never be considered sister churches, and exploit the humiliating dependence on the KGB that the Russian Orthodox bishops still suffer from in the public mind.

There is the dawning realization that the Catholic church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which are not divided in faith or sacraments, are natural allies in the battle for the Russian soul.

Much depends on the hazard of political developments. The old communist principle that was used to justify violence was "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." But you can break eggs without making an omelet.
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Title Annotation:Russian religious sects
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 9, 1993
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