Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 84

The conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, sparked by the Vatican’s decision this past February to set up four dioceses in Russia, worsened on April 19, when the Russian authorities refused to allow Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen who heads the Catholic diocese based in the east Siberian region of Irkutsk, to reenter Russia on his way back from Poland. Customs officials at Moscow’s Sheremetevo-2 airport told Bishop Mazur that he was on a list of persons banned from entering Russia, after which his multi-entry visa was cancelled and he was forced to fly back to Warsaw.

On April 20, the Vatican protested Bishop Mazur’s banishment from Russia, calling it “a grave violation” of Russia’s commitment as a participating member of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which commits members to observe basic human rights and freedoms. The Polish ambassador in Moscow demanded an explanation for the incident. For its part, the Russian Orthodox Church almost immediately denied having had anything to do with the expulsion. The decision, it claimed, was made by the state authorities alone. A spokesman for the Orthodox Church, Vsevelod Chaplin, however, said that Mazur–who goes by the title “apostolic administrator of eastern Siberia and Karafuto prefecture”–had been expelled from Russia because he threatened Russia’s sovereignty. The Karafuto prefecture existed in 1904-1905, when the region of Sakhalin, which was part of it, belonged to Japan (Russian agencies, April 20-21; Moscow Times, VolgaInform,,, April 22).

In March of this year, the State Duma urged the Foreign Ministry not to grant visas to officials of the Roman Catholic Church (Vremya Novostei, April 22). Although this request did not receive official government backing, it would appear that it is now being fulfilled de facto. The Foreign Ministry said officially that there were “serious complaints” vis-a-vis Mazurka’s activities, but claimed the measures taken against him had no nationalistic subtext (, April 23).

These official statements, however, are less than convincing against the backdrop of what is going on in Russia’s regions. On April 28, the People’s Party organized demonstrations and religious processions in twenty large Russian cities in support of “Russian statehood, the Russian Orthodox Church and the traditional way of religious life.” The pretext for the demonstrations was the Vatican’s decision to set up dioceses in Russia, and the demonstrations’ organizers claimed to have the blessing of the Moscow patriarchy (Russian agencies, April 28). Earlier, on April 21, Orthodox inhabitants of Irkutsk had picketed the local Catholic cathedral, demanding that the Catholic diocese based in Irkutsk be dissolved (RIA Novosti, April 22). Meanwhile, Mikhail Lapshin, who heads both the Republic of Altai and the Agrarian Party of Russia, has banned the construction of a Catholic church in his region (, April 25). Pskov Governor Yevgeny Mikhailov suggested to the local Catholic hierarchy that the church it is building be no taller than the local Orthodox church (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 22).

The federal center, which just a short time ago was highly concerned about ensuring that regional leaders were following federal law, has shown complete indifference to what is going on in the regions in relation to the Catholic Church. On April 26 the State Duma refused to discuss the issue of the Catholic Church’s situation in Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Duma’s foreign relations committee, said Catholics in Russia were not being oppressed (, April 26). It seems as if the Kremlin, which would like to avoid accusations of anti-Catholicism, has given the regions carte blanche to do what they want vis-a-vis the Catholics, as long as it looks as if it is being done behind the Kremlin’s back.