Hundreds of Orthodox believers joined hands in cities across Russia Sunday in a "day of protest and prayer" against the "aggressive and expansionist" Roman Catholic Church.
Experts say the Kremlin, at least, may be listening. Within the past month, Russian security services have inexplicably deported two Catholic priests, one a bishop who had been rebuilding their church in Russia after the long communist winter.
"Our goal is to protect Russian statehood and our church against Catholic expansionism," says Ivan Frolov, press secretary of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, a lay organization closely linked to the Orthodox Church, and one of the organizers of Sunday's demonstrations.
The protests were backed by the small, centrist Peoples' Party, whose leader in the Duma, Gennady Raikov, lashed out publicly last week at the Vatican, saying: "The Russian state must show that it is not only able to defend the physical borders of the country, but also its spiritual values."
Last week Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen who heads the world's largest Catholic diocese in the sprawling Siberian territory of Irkutsk, was stopped at Moscow airport by border guards and saw his multiple-entry visa cancelled without explanation. Earlier, an Italian priest who had worked in Russia for a decade, Father Stefano Caprio, was barred from the country. A Catholic monk, Damian Stepien, alleges that Moscow police defaced his passport and tossed it in a waste bin after he told them he was a Catholic during a street check of documents last week.
"This pattern of events suggests the Russian government may be helping the Orthodox Church in its desire to eliminate competition on Russian territory," says Kamaludin Gadjiev, an expert on religion with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
The Russian government has offered no explanation of its role in the rising tensions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko, commenting on the expulsion of Bishop Mazur, told journalists only that "competent organs" had acted in accordance with Russian law. "The basis for the relevant decision is serious complaints about the activities of the Vatican's senior representative," in Russia.
According to its post-Soviet Constitution, Russia is a secular state. But for over 1,000 years, the Orthodox Church has been closely identified with Russian statehood. In the 17th century, Peter the Great abolished the office of the church's independent patriarch, or spiritual head, and replaced him with the tsar. Soviet leaders revived the post of patriarch, but reduced the church to a wing of the state bureaucracy. Since the demise of the USSR, despite officially proclaimed secularism, church and state have drifted together.
"Since Russian civil society is so weak, the Orthodox Church looks to the state to provide material support and funding," says Alexander Kolunov, a professor of comparative religion at Moscow State University. "In return, the church provides ideological legitimacy for the state and helps to bring up youth in the spirit of patriotism."
Surveys show that about two-thirds of Russia's 144 million people identify themselves with Orthodoxy, but only a tiny minority actively practice the faith. A pro-Catholic website (http://http://www.catholic-church.org/church-unity/cat_ru_e.htm) puts the number of Catholics at 1 million, though experts say it's probably half that. Many of Russia's Catholics are descendants of Poles, Lithuanians, and Germans deported to Siberia during Soviet times. Due to the lack of qualified Russians, most of the Catholic priests working in Russia are foreigners appointed by the Vatican.
Relations between Orthodoxy and Catholicism have been stormy for over a millennium. Legend has it that Prince Vladimir, who brought Christianity to Russia in 986, rejected Catholicism because its center of power was in the Vatican, and no Russian prince could ever obey decisions made by foreigners.
The problem may be the same today. Experts say the present tensions in Russia erupted in February, after the Vatican decided to transform its previous "apostolic administrations" in Russia into formal Catholic dioceses. "The Russian state interfered because its sovereignty was infringed upon by this act," says Dmitry Shutko, an expert with the official Institute of State and Law in Moscow. "The Vatican established its territorial units and appointed its envoys without consultation with Russian canonical or governmental authorities."
Supporters of Sunday's protests are defending Orthodoxy against unfair competition from "aggressive proselytizing by the Catholics," says Sergei Antonenko, religion editor of the conservative history journal Rodina. "Because of the harsh Soviet experience, our people have not had time to rediscover their own faith."
But some experts say the real problem is that many Russians have simply not accepted the implications of post-Soviet laws mandating separation of church and state and full freedom of conscience. "The Orthodox Church is demanding that the Russian state act in its old-fashioned role as defender of the faith, and we have seen some very worrisome developments," says Mr. Gadjiev.