During his visit to Moscow last week, President Bush held an unexpected private meeting with Russian Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz to acknowledge the difficulties facing the country’s Catholic Church and discuss the importance of preserving religious freedom.
“Someone … told me that the president wanted to meet with me privately,” said Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, still visibly moved by his unexpected encounter with the president.
“When President Bush entered the room, his first words were: ‘You are in trouble?’ I understood immediately that he had been informed about the present situation of the Catholic Church in Russia,” the archbishop said outside of Spaso House, the residence of the American ambassador, where he talked with a reporter about the church’s troubles for the first time.
In his talk with the archbishop, Mr. Bush stressed the importance of the separation of church and the state, and said all religions should enjoy the same rights.
Mr. Bush “made it clear that these rights are not based on a simple human law, but that this law had been entrusted by God,” said the archbishop, who said he was struck by how well the president was informed about difficulties facing Catholics and other religious minorities in Russia.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz mentioned two leaders, Bishop Mazur of the Diocese in South Siberia and Italian priest Stefano Caprio, both of whom have been expelled from Russia.
Mr. Bush expressed concern about the developments and offered his help. “President Bush did promise me that he would raise the issue of religious freedom with President Putin.”
He was grateful to have met with Mr. Bush, but the archbishop lamented the fact that Mr. Putin has never received him privately. “I have written already several letters to Putin, but I have never received a reply from him, nor could I meet with him personally.”
Other participants in the Moscow gathering complimented Mr. Bush’s speech.
“It was very interesting that President Bush compared Russia to the United States when he was talking about the values of democracy,” said Abraham Berkowitz, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia. “He talked about it without accusing Russia, but by encouraging Russia to go forward on its path to democracy.”
Mr. Berkowitz recalled the president’s comments on freedom of the press in a democracy. In his speech Mr. Bush had said, “I remind those who sometimes get frustrated with the media that, even in America, elected officials sometimes don’t agree with what’s written about them. But it is important for those of us who value democracy to promote an independent media.”
The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, president of Aid to the Church in Russia of Great Falls, was in Moscow during the presidential visit and expressed his gratitude for the meeting.
“By singling out the archbishop, the president showed his appreciation of the positive role played by the Catholic Church in Russia,” Father Guarnizo said. “Religious freedom is a basic human right, and for President Bush to promote it so publicly, yet again, is a great help to those of us working in countries where that right was repressed for so long.”