- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

It was called the "Kulturkampf," the battle of civilizations in the 1870s, a battle which Otto von Bismarck, Prussia's and later Germany's Iron Chancellor, waged against the Catholic Church and lost.

Bismarck didn't want any competition from another influential organization, especially one claiming "papal infallibility," to compete with him for votes in a united Germany. So he introduced laws that could have crushed the church.

But there was strong opposition to his persecution and Bismarck was enough of a statesman to know when to cut his losses which he did in 1879. In fact, he began an attempt to win over the Catholic party to his side; the Teutonic version of "can't lick 'em, join 'em."

Presently there is another "Kulturkampf" under way, this time in Russia against the minuscule Catholic Church. But it is not the Putin government that is prosecuting this war. It is the Russian Orthodox Church, no longer, as it once was, a Soviet vassal dominated by the onetime Politburo and KGB that appointed church patriarchs, bishops and priests and made sure that the church toed the party line.

Both Presidents Yeltsin and Putin have shown the new Russia is prepared to accept the legitimacy of other faiths including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism. However, the Russian Orthodox Church is not that tolerant. Most Russians, slightly more than half of 145 million population, are defined as Orthodox. Russian Catholics? Perhaps 600,000, although Reuters quoted the Vatican's estimate of 1.3 million practicing Catholics.

The thousand-year split between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches, which Pope John Paul II, now 81, had hoped to heal in his lifetime, seems unbridgeable. A papal emissary, Cardinal Walter Kasper, was scheduled to come to Moscow ("the third Rome," as an Orthodox monk in the Middle Ages pronounced it) on a peace mission. The senior cardinal is head of the Vatican Council for the Unity of Christians. But the invitation was rescinded two weeks ago by the Orthodox patriarch, Aleksy II, when the pope approved a decision to create four dioceses in Russia. As the patriarch's spokesman, according to the New York Times, explained in a mystifying analogy on Russian TV:

"Our attitude towards this step is the same as the Catholics if we were to appoint an alternative pope in Rome."

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, joined the Orthodox church dismissiveness arguing that "a march to the East via the Catholic Church is actually taking place: NATO expands to the East, the Catholic Church expands to the East."

Rescinding the invitation to Cardinal Kasper means an end to any hope that Pope John Paul would be invited by the Orthodox Church to visit Russia even though President Putin has put out a welcome mat for the pontiff. The more tolerant formerly Soviet Ukraine welcomed the pope last June much to the irritation of the Orthodox clergy.

The Russian church is fearful that any attempt to reorganize the Catholic church in Russia means first, active missionary work by Catholic priests among Orthodox believers. Second, were the pope to be an honored guest, Russian Orthodox leaders might be asked to return Catholic Church properties seized in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution and, later, by Josef Stalin and handed over to the understandably docile Russian Orthodox church. V.I. Lenin is on record as having ordered public hanging of priests in their vestments as a lesson to any possible priestly dissidents.

Part of creating a civil society is the establishment of religious tolerance but that is a distant possibility in the new Russia.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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