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World Perspective | RUSSIA

Religions Could Use Divine Intervention to Overcome Legal Curbs

October 21, 2000|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Of all the proposals one might make to a Roman Catholic bishop, a proposal of marriage is probably the least common and most audacious.

But in Russia, that is precisely what local authorities have suggested to two Catholic prelates trying to obtain permission to live and work in the former atheist superpower.

"They explained to me that if a priest marries a Russian girl, there's no problem," Bishop Jerzy Mazur said by telephone from Irkutsk, seat of his diocese, which covers nearly 4,000 square miles of eastern Siberia. "I find there's a lot of misunderstanding about the Catholic Church."

That's putting it mildly. Nearly nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is still struggling to come to terms with religion, especially imports like Protestantism and Catholicism.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 7, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Russian parishes--The Times incorrectly reported Oct. 21 that, at the time of the Soviet collapse, there were two Roman Catholic parishes legally registered in Russia. There were actually nine.

Although Russia's Constitution guarantees freedom of faith, churches and other religious groups still have to register with the authorities. And under Russian law, a religious vocation is not considered a good enough reason to grant a bishop permanent residence or citizenship.

That leaves Polish-born Mazur and a second prelate, Bishop Clemens Pickel, a German citizen, trapped in an eddy of Russian law.

"Russian law says [the bishop] needs to be a permanent resident to be registered as the head of a religious organization, but [local officials] say the only way to become a permanent resident is to marry a Russian," explained Deacon Marcus Nowotny, an aide to Pickel.

He added that many Russians do not understand that while marriage is an option for Orthodox clergy, it isn't for their Catholic counterparts.

In 1997, after reports that dangerous cults were gaining thousands of adherents, the Russian parliament passed a new law on religion. Since most Russians are unfamiliar with non-Orthodox faiths and can't tell Methodists from Moonies, the law was designed to protect them by regulating religious organizations, especially foreign ones. By the end of this year, all religious groups in Russia must register with authorities or find themselves without many legal rights.

Of the Catholic Church's four dioceses, only two have been registered--Moscow and Novosibirsk. Both are headed by bishops born in the territory of the former Soviet Union--Belarus and Kazakhstan, respectively--and they qualify for Russian citizenship.

Mazur and Pickel, because they were born outside the former Soviet Union, don't qualify for citizenship or permanent residence. And so unless parliament or President Vladimir V. Putin intervenes, they may be unable to register their dioceses.

Still, as with so many other laws in Russia, the religion law is loosely written, and local authorities have a lot of room to bend the rules if they choose.

"The Catholic Church would be in real trouble if the law were strictly enforced," said Lawrence Uzzell, director of the Oxford-based Keston Institute, which monitors freedom of religion in the former Soviet Union. "Thank God it's not."

Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, there were more than 300 Catholic parishes in Russia. There are still about 3 million Russians of Roman Catholic ancestry, many of them descendants of Poles, Germans or Lithuanians who lived in the territory of the Russian empire for centuries. During World War II, Stalin exiled thousands of them to remote regions of Russia for fear they would side with the Nazis.

At the time of the Soviet collapse, Russia was left with only two small parishes--Moscow and St. Petersburg--which served mainly diplomats and other foreign residents. Since then, more than 100 local parishes have been reorganized throughout Russia.

That rapid growth has caused the Russian Orthodox Church to complain more than once that Catholics are "proselytizing."

"We're not proselytizing; we're just trying to gather the people we already have," said Mazur, whose diocese is the largest in the world in terms of territory. "Many of them were sent here by force. Their grandfathers were Catholics. They have the right to hear the word of God and decide for themselves."

In the end, says Uzzell, the real problem is that in the early 1990s, predictions of a massive post-Soviet religious revival in Russia were overblown.

"No one is doing very well [at attracting church members]," he said, noting that only 1% of Moscow residents attended Easter services this year. "It seems that in Russia, 70 years of Communist repression did manage to extirpate religious consciousness from most people's minds."

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