Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 35

Pope John Paul II last week announced his intention to create a new ecclesiastical province on the territory of the Russian Federation consisting of four Roman Catholic dioceses. It is to be headed by Metropolitan Tadeush Kondrusevich, who has until now coordinated the activities of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia (Russian agencies, February 11). The Pope’s decision has met with sharp disapproval from Russian federal and regional authorities, along with the Russian Orthodox Church, acting together with unprecedented solidarity.

The Vatican was described as portraying the move as an almost routine elevation of its Russian organization–there are some 1.3 million Catholics in Russia–to the same status as that enjoyed by virtually every other Catholic community worldwide (International Herald Tribune, 13 February 2002). Clearly, however, the Vatican anticipated that its move might raise hackles in Moscow. It therefore made a significant concession, announcing that the new dioceses would be named after saints or religious events rather than, as is normal, after the cities in which their administrations will be located (RIA Novosti, February 12). Thus, the Archdiocese of the Mother of God will be situated in Moscow, the diocese of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk, that of Saint Kliment in Saratov, and that of Saint Joseph in Irkutsk (, February 15).

This concession did not mollify the Russian Orthodox Church. Its official spokesman lost no time in declaring that the formation of Catholic dioceses on Russian territory would further delay a long mooted meeting between Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksy II and Pope John Paul II (, February 11). The Holy Synod, the highest collective body of the Russian Orthodox Church, officially declared that “The establishment of a ‘province’–that is to say, a Metropolitan–means that the Roman Catholic Church is establishing a territorial base in Russia, centered in Moscow and seeking to have as its congregation the Russian people, which culturally, spiritually and historically is the congregation of the Russian Orthodox Church.” The formation in Russia of such a church, the Holy Synod went on, represented “a challenge to Orthodoxy” and indicated that the Vatican was nursing missionary ambitions toward Russia (, February 12).

The Russian Orthodox Church’s position received wide support from the country’s politicians. The Russian Foreign Ministry urged the Vatican to “refrain from founding dioceses on Russia’s territory and to resolve this issue with the Russian Orthodox Church.” It was regrettable, Ministry sources said, that such an important decision was taken “without proper consideration of the opinion of the Russian side” (, February 12). Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, called on the Russian parliament to restrict the access of Vatican representatives to Russian territory. The Duma supported the idea and called on the Foreign Ministry to refuse visas to Vatican officials “in connection with their high-handed actions” (RIA Novosti, February 12).

The reaction in the regions was similar. Talgat Tadzhuddin, supreme mufti of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia and of the European Countries of the CIS, which is headquartered in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, said that the establishment of Catholic dioceses in Russia appeared to be “a deliberate provocation.” Russia had “from time immemorial,” Tadzhuddin said, hosted “traditional confessions such as Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.” It was unworthy of the Pope, Tadzhuddin went on, to seek to introduce innovations, and “from abroad at that” (Vremya i Dengi [Kazan], February 14). Representatives of Muslims outside Tadzhuddin’s organization, such as the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan, also headquartered in Kazan, and the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Volga Region, headquartered in Saratov, declined to get involved in the conflict between the two Christian churches.

Governors of regions where the new dioceses are to be centered also preferred to remain silent. The exception was Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitry Ayatskov, who roundly accused the Vatican of spiritual expansionism. Ayatskov called on representatives of “long-established Russian confessions”–Russian Orthodoxy and Islam–to close ranks against the Catholic onslaught. Ayatskov apparently forgot that he himself had only recently accused Muslims of mounting a spiritual onslaught and called on Russian society to rise in defense of Orthodoxy (Russian agencies, February 15).

Given the complicated relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican, it is hard to judge the merits of the case or to predict how the dispute will develop. This may explain why so few observers have commented on the situation. What is noteworthy is how strongly Russia’s secular authorities have risen to the defense of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is unlikely that Vatican representatives will really be denied visas. But the energy with which the civil power has come to the defense of the Orthodox Church nonetheless raises questions about the degree to which the principles upheld in the Russian constitution of equality of religions and the separation of church and state are realized in reality.