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Little progress in Catholic/Orthodox relations. (News in Brief: Russia).

Moscow--Relations between Catholics and Orthodox Russia (see C.I, April 2003, p. 22) remain strained. During the week of Christian Unity in January 2003, Pope John Paul Ii made an appeal to Russian authorities to resolve the crisis caused by the expulsion of some Catholic priests and a bishop from the Federation. Shortly thereafter, Catholic Bishop Clemens Pickel, of German origin, whose diocese of Saratov lies in South European Russia, received a permission of permanence from the Russian government.

The Holy See has appointed Archbishop Antonio Mennini as its new representative in Moscow. He comes from a previous posting to Bulgaria, where he fostered good relations with the Orthodox community, organizing the papal visit there last May. He was welcomed to Russia on January 20, 2003, by President Vladimir Putin, who declared that Russia favoured "a political dialogue with the Vatican," a statement that some observers heard with a degree of scepticism. Fr. Igor Kowalevsky of the Moscow Archdiocese said, "Our biggest problem today is not with the government but with the Russian Orthodox Church."

This estimate is probably correct; since the ending of the Communist regime, the Orthodox Church has received practically the status of an official state religion. Education ministry officials have even suggested Orthodox religion classes in state schools.

Archbishop Mennini paid his first official visit to Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II on February 21. The Patriarch once again repeated accusations of proselytism by Catholics and complained about the situation of the Orthodox in Ukraine where Eastern-rite Catholicism has reclaimed many of its churches which had been given by Stalin for Orthodox use after he suppressed the Catholics in 1944.

Vitaly Litvin, Russia's envoy to the Vatican has also made it clear that Orthodox approval is needed before any improvement in relations is developed. In a February 18 interview, he denied that an anti-Catholic mind set was involved, and vaguely spoke of some representatives of the Catholic Church who had "begun to dedicate themselves to activities incompatible with their position as priests." He offered no proof of this.

Sergey Mironov, president of the Russian Senate, met with the Pope and with Cardinal Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, on March 28. They discussed the international situation as well as the clerical expulsions. As yet, no resolution has been found, although Mr. Litwin had previously suggested that the Kremlim was not adverse to Rome appointing replacement clergy in Russia. High level theological discussions between the two Churches were re-launched on March 20, 2003, in Geneva, Switzerland. Present were Cardinal Kasper and Metropolitan Kiril of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.

Icon of Kazan

A separate question relating to Russia surfaced in a Vatican report on April 15. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the priceless icon of Our Lady of Kazan, one of Russian Orthodox's most beloved images, could no longer be found. It was smuggled out of the country and given to the Pope who has kept it in his private apartments since 1993.

John Paul very much wishes to return the icon, which is reputed to be miraculous, to the people of Russia; however, the occasion has not yet presented itself. The Pope is scheduled to visit the former USSR state of Mongolia in August of this year. Unconfirmed Vatican reports have been saying that he may now possibly make a stopover at the Russian city of Kazan en route to Mongolia and there return "the Protection of Russia" to the Orthodox faithful.

Restrictions on liberty

An anti-Catholic bias is just one face of the current government's increasing tendency to disregard basic human rights and democratic liberties. The media are also becoming increasingly restricted. The Wall Street Journal reports that independent TV stations are being progressively taken under state control and their executives fired.

An economist's report has detailed various restrictions on freedom of the press. Human rights activists, even Peace Corps volunteers, have been expelled or denied reentry. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have noted violations of human rights by and among the Russian-armed forces (many of whom are conscripts), and within the justice system. Old habits die hard. Despite 'perestroika' and 'glasnost,' it may be many decades before "all the Russians" forswear the culture of death.

Other countries

It is well-known that Pope John Paul greatly desires increased co-operation and dialogue with Orthodox and other ancient Christian Churches long separated from Rome by schism. What follows is a brief update on the progress in 2002-03 in the various locations.

Bulgaria--In general, relations between the Vatican and Bulgaria showed improvement after the Pope visited there in May 2002 (see C.I., July/August, News in Brief p. 28). However, at the end of the year, a new law came into force requiring all religious denominations to be registered with the recently set up government Office of Cults. The law accords special status as the "traditional Church" to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Government sources say it was put in place to eliminate a breakaway synod which split from the main Orthodox in the 1990s.

The legislation will, however, result in discriminatory procedures against various other Christian denominations. Already visas have been refused to Latin Catholics such as members of the Salesians and the Missionary Sisters of Charity.

Belarus--The new Bulgarian law bears remarkable similarities to that passed in Belarus in October 2002 by the dictatorial neo-Communist government of Aleksandr Lukashenko (see C.I., April 2003, p.23). Despite the Pope's encouragement to the Catholics of Belarus, the Church there continues to exist "on the margins of legality." Latin-rite Catholics have bishops, but those of the Byzantine-rite do not. Most of their church property, confiscated by the Communists after 1945, still remains in the hands of the Russian Orthodox to whom Stalin gave it.

The Holy Father continues to ask Catholics to pursue "fraternal relations" with the Orthodox; he also asks them to support the family with the hope of reinvigorating the social fabric destroyed by Communism.

Constantinople--Pope John Paul sent a message November 30, 2002, to Patriarch Bartholomes I of Constantinople on the occasion of the feast of St. Andrew, patron of the ecumenical patriarchate. The papal message asked Bartholomew, "first among equals" of the Orthodox churches for more frequent contacts in order to "re-launch the theological dialogue." The Patriarch is expected to respond with an Orthodox delegation to Rome on June 29, the feast of St. Andrew's brother, the apostle St. Peter.

Greece--Separated since 1054, the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches are experiencing a rapprochement in the light of a common concern for the future of Europe. Cooperation between the Churches was triggered by the friendly reception given the Pope by Greek Arch-bishop Christodoulos of Athens on his May 2001 visit.

Exchange visits by Greek Orthodox to Rome (March 2002), and by a delegation of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (February 2003), have now been successfully undertaken. The Churches share a common concern in the preservation of the Christian roots of Europe in the midst of its increasing secularization. A further Vatican delegation is scheduled to attend a May 2003 conference in Athens organized by the Greek Church and focusing on this problem.

Greek Orthodox clergy in Jerusalem have also, for the first time, participated in the week of prayer for Christian Unity in that city.

Romania--On October 12, 2002, the Holy Father welcomed to Rome the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Teoctist. His Beatitude was returning the Papal visit to Romania of 1999. The Pope used the occasion to remind the Patriarch of advances in theological dialogue between the two Churches and to advocate a continuing of the common witness of all Christians. The Patriarch shared in prayers and in the Liturgy of the Word at the special celebratory Mass which ended his visit.

Serbia--Promotion of fraternal relations was also front and centre at the Vatican in the first week of February 2003. There, the Pope welcomed a Serbian Orthodox delegation, headed by Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro. The Holy Father proposed that both Churches should work together to promote peace initiatives in the Balkans area. He also acknowledged that the Christian identity of Europe had been shaped by the traditions of both Eastern and Western churches.

Later the same month, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States made an official visit to Belgrade at the invitation of the Serbian Foreign Minister.

Ancient Eastern Churches--Finally, on January 28, 2003, the Pope launched the second phase of dialogue with the Ancient Eastern Churches. These Churches have been in schism for 1500 years since they rejected the conclusions of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), confirming the divine and human natures of Jesus.

The previous phase of dialogue clarified many of the problems between the churches, several of which were rooted in language difficulties. Having resolved the problems with terminology in individual study sessions, the Churches are now preparing to continue the theological dialogue as members of a joint commission working with the Vatican.

The Armenian Apostolic Church is a prominent member of the Ancient Eastern Churches group; others included are the Syro-Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Orthodox Churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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