“Catholic priests in Russia are ‘persona non grata,’” and Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, has compiled a list of priests termed “undesirable,” according to an internationally respected news source.
“An authentic anti-Catholic campaign is being conducted not only by the Russian Orthodox Church and nationalist forces, but also by State agencies,” stated the Italian news daily La Stampa.
The president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the Russian Federation, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, issued a protest statement declaring “with grave concern” that “an organized campaign is being waged against the Catholic Church in Russia,” according to the independent Zenit news agency.
While authorities in the Russian city of Pskov, at the request of the local Russian Orthodox bishop, forbade the construction of a Catholic church, the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian legislature, has gone so far as to urge Russian president Vladimir Putin “to ban Catholics from Russian territory,” according to La Stampa.
The Catholic Church in Russia, like nearly all other faiths, has no clear legal status. Following the adoption in 1997 of the “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations,” only four religions – Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism – have official recognition in Russia.
Russia’s law on religions has received scathing criticism from various quarters, including the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, which describes itself as a “non-profit” and “non-sectarian” defender of religious liberty.
The International Coalition for Religious Freedom condemned Russia’s law on religions as a “blatant manifestation of intolerance and religious discrimination toward practically all religious organizations.”
The position of the Catholic Church in Russia perceptively worsened when the Vatican raised the status of its four “apostolic administrations” to formal diocese.
The Russian Orthodox Church condemned the action as part of a plan to convert Orthodox Christians to the Catholic Church. The Russian government took offense, claiming that the Vatican failed to inform either the government or officials of the Russian Orthodox Church.
An official of the Catholic hierarchy in Russia denied the allegation, and stated that both the Russian government and the Orthodox Church were appraised of the move in advance.
Two influential Catholic churchmen have also been banned from reentering Russia, after traveling out of the country. La Stampa reported that in late March, Fr. Stefano Caprio, who had been working in Russia for 12 years and has sought to obtain Russian citizenship, was barred from returning to Russia, having been accused of “activities incompatible with his priestly duties.” Two weeks later, Bishop Jerzy Mazur, recently named to the diocese of Irkutsk in Siberia, was denied entry into Russian territory, and labeled an “undesirable” person.
On the Sunday following Mazur’s failed attempt to take his post in Irkutsk, a crowd of some 350 gathered outside of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart in Irkutsk during morning services, and shouted, “down with expansion of Catholicism in Russia,” according to an Associated Press report.
In his statement, Kondrusiewicz also cited the “particularly disappointing … silence” from the Russian government and “international organizations for the defense of human rights” in response to treatment of Mazur and others of his flock in Russia.
Referring to the present state of religious expression in Russia, Kondrusiewicz asked, “What is in store for Catholics of our country. … Are the times of persecution of the faith returning?”
Although Putin on several occasions has described Russia as a “secular state,” the Russian government continues to work closely with religious leaders of the Russian Orthodoxy. Observers note that since the time of Czar Peter the Great (d.1725), Russian Orthodoxy has remained nearly a department of state, having little autonomy from the central government.