War of the Faiths

An increasingly bitter conflict between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Church highlights the struggle for real religious freedom in the former Soviet Union
Newsweek International, Aug. 26, 2002 issue
By Christian Caryl and Eve Conant

Aug. 26 issue — Father Krzysztof Kempa has a congregation but no church. As he reads mass for 15 Roman Catholics in a dark, cramped apartment in the southern Russian city of Belgorod, he struggles to make himself heard over a curbside car alarm, the hum of an old Soviet refrigerator and a boiling tea kettle.

The altar is a desk adorned with a candle and wooden cross. A bedroom doubles as a confessional. The faithful sing hymns to the accompaniment of a Yamaha synthesizer teetering precariously on an old washing machine. “We must keep up the fight,” Father Krzysztof admonishes his flock. “Otherwise we will drown.”

But he and his congregation are already drowning—in bureaucracy. That’s the weapon of choice in what has become a bitter religious turf war. The Catholics in this gritty industrial city, hard by the Ukraine border, have been denied the right to register as a religious group. They say it’s because local authorities, in cahoots with the Russian Orthodox Church, do not want to them to reclaim their own church, a tiny 19th-century chapel taken away after the Bolshevik revolution. Orthodox churchmen, who want the building for a children’s center, deny they’re playing politics or wrangling over real estate. But Belgorod’s Father Pavel Veingolt, who leads sermons at the newly renovated Orthodox church downtown, freely admits he has a problem with Catholics. In a land where the freedom to worship has long been denied, and where people are still awakening from seven decades of spiritual slumber, he sees them as dangerous competitors for the new faithful. “Our Russians are being stolen,” he insists, “before we have a chance to get to them.”

For believers across the former Soviet Union, the death of communism is turning out to be a mixed blessing. The ritual atheism of the old regime is gone. Faiths of every order are rebuilding churches and resurrecting their flocks. But there’s a flip side to this renaissance—an ugly battle for souls. The Catholics of Belgorod are but one small front in this war, and the combatants span almost every faith—from —Muslims to Protestants to Mormons, even Hare Krishnas. Unfortunately, it turns out, one faction in this struggle is more equal than others. That’s the deeply traditional Orthodox Church—and across much of the the former Soviet empire, it’s drawing on the full powers of the state to fight for what it considers its rightful spiritual turf.

Evidence of this unholy new alliance between church and state is abundant. In May, Protestants in Omsk tried to show a film about Jesus but were stopped by local authorities, who claimed that it used hypnosis to make “fools” of those who watched it. This spring, one of Russia’s four Catholic bishops was barred from re-entering the country, as have a number of priests. Just last week, in a stunning setback for the country’s million or so Buddhists, Moscow rescinded an earlier invitation and barred the Dalai Lama from visiting, ostensibly for fear of offending the Chinese.

And so it is elsewhere in the old empire. Last week in Georgia, thugs wearing crosses of the Orthodox Church ransacked the home of a Jehovah’s Witness, who was organizing a religious festival the next day. As police reportedly looked on, they doused Bibles and religious pamphlets with gasoline and burned them. Belarus authorities have imposed massive fines (up to 50 times the country’s minimum monthly wage) on Hindus who tried to hold a meditation ceremony in a public park. The Christian Full Gospel Church in Uzbekistan claims its members are being followed by the local version of the old KGB; Lutherans in Latvia complain of police harassment, and Georgian rights groups charge that hundreds of Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics have experienced incidents of violent physical attacks and arson.

Episodes such as these are the dark side of an otherwise uplifting phenomenon. When it comes to religious tolerance and openness, Russia and the former Soviet republics have come a long way over the past decade. Religious programming is ubiquitous on TV and radio; religious education is commonplace in schools and at home. Russians who once hid their religiosity now openly wear crosses; just about every urban restaurant offers Lent menus in the spring. And everywhere, it seems, new churches, mosques, synagogues and monasteries are under construction—and drawing worshipers, to boot. In 1937, for example, there were fewer than 100 mosques left in Russia; today the number exceeds 5,000. Judaism has also made a striking comeback. “Things have vastly improved over the last 10 years,” says Elena Kurdover at Moscow’s Jewish Center. “To put it simply, we’ve been officially recognized as a religion.”

To appreciate the full scope of the revival, one need only visit the ancient Orthodox monastery of Valaam, a chain of islands in Lake Ladoga northeast of St. Petersburg. The monastery fell into suspended animation in the 1940s, when the Bolsheviks chased away the monks. Returning after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they’ve since found themselves coping with a new challenge: skyrocketing popularity. Last year some 60,000 pilgrims visited the island, treble what it was three years ago. “Everyone wants to see the holy places,” says Abbot Pankratii, the head of the monastery, noting the irony that what people come there to find—a mystical experience—”doesn’t lend itself to popularization.”

Still, the believers keep coming. Many arrive on one of a slew of new religious package tours, harking from all points of the former U.S.S.R. Few match the expected image of old babushkas in head scarves. Yevgeny Razsykhaev, 21, is with a mob of schoolmates from Syktyvkar in western Siberia. “Most of us have already been baptized, and now we’re searching for enlightenment,” he says. “We study the lives of the holy people and try to emulate them.” For Ukrainian Natalia Poprotskaya, 47, Valaam is just one of 10 stops on a 10-day whirlwind tour: “There is zero comfort on these pilgrimages. We sleep on the floors of churches or the bus, which smells of urine. —We don’t bathe, we don’t eat hot food. But in the Orthodox Church, we say there is no salvation without suffering.”

With devotees like this, why the problems? Surely the Orthodox Church, the iconic Mother Russia, has little to fear from the pope—or any other faith, for that matter. But the Orthodox don’t see it that way. To many of them, the Catholic Church in particular is increasingly seen as an archrival, an enemy to be fought and bested.

Doctrinal differences, going back to the Great Schism of 1054, are the least of it. A deeper problem is the Orthodox Church’s deep insecurity, an abiding and profound sense of vulnerability. For much of the past decade, Orthodox clerics have struggled against the legacy of Soviet persecution. In their heart of hearts, few genuinely believe that today’s climate of religious freedom will last, says Andrei Zolotov, a Moscow journalist who specializes in religious issues. “There’s this underlying sense that one day a new wave of persecution will come. That’s why they have to build lots of churches now—so that there will be some left for future generations.” That ingrained pessimism, he adds, also fuels the drive to compete aggressively against other faiths, chiefly Catholicism, viewed by Orthodox as the most immediate threat to their own church. Amassing “souls” is thus a spiritual hedge against uncertainties to come.

Money also figures in the battle. In Ukraine, for instance, five major Orthodox and Catholic churches, each with roots in local history and culture, are squabbling over competing territories—and the sometimes lucrative real estate that goes with them. In fact, more than half of the 12,000 parishes claimed by the Moscow patriarchy are actually in Ukraine.

A certain xenophobia factors into that resentment. To hear Orthodox clerics tell it, many of Russia’s regions are already heavily influenced by Protestants and Pentecostals—particularly eastern Siberia and Yakutia in the Far East, where money from South Korea and the United States is flowing in. By comparison, the Orthodox Church feels like a poor cousin. Father Vsevolod, chaplain of the Moscow patriarchy likens the Orthodox Church to a beggar, emerging from communism empty-handed. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t own its buildings, nor the land they stand on. “The church got nothing” from Russia’s political transition, he complains. Lately it began lobbying to reclaim at least a fraction of its vast prerevolutionary property, as yet without luck. Unlike other churches that receive heavy funding from abroad, the Orthodox Church survives mainly off donations from not-so-rich Russians.

The church, though, does have the government on its side. Father Stanislav Krajnak is but one of a number of non-Orthodox churchmen to complain of state harassment. Right now, after two years as the priest of his Catholic congregation of 100 in the city of Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow, the Slovakia native is packing his bags—the latest in a series of Catholic priests to be kicked out of Russia. He tells of anti-Catholic demonstrations arranged by local Orthodox priests in collusion with government authorities, including the FSB, the domestic successor to the old KGB. LET US DEFEND RUSSIAN LAND AGAINST THE OCCUPIERS! placards read. (Local authorities deny involvement.) When he sought to visit Kazakhstan in July, he was denied entry. The same thing happened when he wanted to go to Belarus. And recently, when he went to renew his Russian residency permit, he was told to get out of the country by the end of —this month. No reason was given. Father Krajnak’s troubles are part of a larger chess match that began in February, when the Vatican announced that it was upgrading its four “apostolic administrations” in Russia to the status of dioceses, headed by full bishops. Orthodox officials interpreted that as evidence that the Vatican was launching a missionary offensive in Russia. The Moscow patriarchy denounced the move as a “declaration of war” on the Mother Church. Parliament took up the cause. “The Russian state must show that it is not only able to defend the physical borders of the country, but also its spiritual values,” declared one deputy, Gennady Raikov. In April, authorities banned two leading Catholics from re-entering the country: Polish priest Jerzy Mazur, the bishop of Saint Joseph’s diocese in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, and the Italian Stefano Caprio, pastor of Catholic parishes in the Russian cities of Vladimir and Ivanovo.

All this understandably worries non-Orthodox religious leaders. For one thing, such partisanship runs run counter to the Russian Constitution, which clearly separates church and state. “We are very worried by this,” says Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of Russia’s Catholics. “We see the Russian Orthodox Church becoming part of the apparatus of state.” Maxim Shevchenko, a specialist in politics and religion who hosts Radio Mayak’s nationwide “Choice of Faith” program, puts it more bluntly. “For years the church was not really part of the society at large. Now they want orthodoxy to be the same as being Russian.” Whereas Catholics hope to win a following in Russia over the coming decades, he adds, the Orthodox Church is pushing for recognition as the official state religion. Parliament also recently passed a bill allowing authorities to crack down on “religious extremism,” but critics fear this could be used against faiths like Islam and other real or imagined enemies.

It’s possible that the Orthodox Church will overreach in its grab for power, that the strategy of cozying up to the government will backfire. Historian Orlando Figes notes in a recent book that many Orthodox abandoned the church in the late 19th century precisely because it became too close to the hated state. There’s also a chance that Catholics and Orthodox might iron out their differences. Here and there are promising signs: a jointly managed Orthodox-Catholic charity, for instance, or Orthodox priests teaching at Catholic seminaries. “We have to respond to the challenges of the modern world together,” says Archbishop Kondrusiewicz. Perhaps. At the same time, however, it would be dangerous to ignore Russia’s fatal penchant for monopolies. If matters continue on their present course, other religions may not “drown,” as Belgorod’s Catholics worry. But they will find it harder and harder to stay afloat.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday September 1, 2002.
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