- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

The Vatican's point man in Russia yesterday accused the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church of "double standards" for loudly protesting last month's decision to create the first four Roman Catholic dioceses in the country.

"We are going to have four bishops in all of Russia," Archbishop Thaddaeus Kondrusiewicz said in an interview yesterday during a weeklong visit to Washington. "The Russian Orthodox Church has four bishops in England alone, and we have never had a problem with this."

The prelate noted that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II had been among those who protested what they saw as prejudice against Russian athletes at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

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"I say there is the same double standard being applied to Catholics in Russia when we are accused" of seeking to convert Orthodox believers to Catholicism, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said.

The archbishop's Washington visit comes amid growing tensions between the rival Christian faiths. After keeping a low profile in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Vatican under Polish-born Pope John Paul II has taken several steps to boost its profile in Russia.

The moves have upset a fragile rapprochement between the pope and the patriarch and has influenced Russian President Vladimir Putin's post-September 11 attempt to swing Russian foreign policy closer to the West.

The Vatican announced on Feb. 11 it was creating the four dioceses, upgrading what had been temporary "apostolic administrations" serving the country's estimated 600,000 Catholics. In another move also condemned by Patriarch Alexy as a provocation, the pope addressed some 3,000 Russian Catholics in Moscow via a satellite television hookup over the weekend.

"This is yet another confirmation of how serious the Vatican is about turning eastwards," the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta observed.

The moves have revived long-simmering fears among the Russian Orthodox hierarchy about Catholic poaching among the faithful in Russia.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said the decision to create the new dioceses was simply a "normalization" of the church's Russian operations, but the patriarch denounced the move as an "unfriendly" act.

Patriarch Alexy said: "The Vatican's action has put in jeopardy the ability of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East to cooperate as two great civilizations for the benefit of Europe and the world."

In response, the Russian Orthodox Church last month abruptly canceled a visit by papal envoy Cardinal Walter Kasper to Moscow to discuss better relations between the two faiths.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said one fundamental problem in the dispute is differing definitions over what constitutes "proselytizing" and missionary work by the Catholic Church. Many of Russia's Catholics today are of German or Polish descent, and the archbishop said the Vatican does not dispute that Russia "is an Orthodox country."

But he said Catholic leaders have a problem with the Russian Orthodox contention that anyone born Russian cannot embrace Catholicism.

"When someone comes to me seeking to join the faith, I don't ask him what his nationality is," said the archbishop.

Mr. Putin's reaction to the dispute has been watched closely. Many Moscow observers feel the Russian president has made a break with the close identification of church and Kremlin under President Boris Yeltsin.

Mr. Putin has said he would welcome a visit by the pope to Russia, which is strongly opposed by the Orthodox hierarchy.

The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted relatively mildly to the Vatican's decision to create the new dioceses, saying it recognized the Catholic Church's "right to self-organization," but urged the Vatican to "take no action before resolving this issue with the Russian Orthodox Church."

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