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Moscow Catholics Locked Out of Their House of Worship

Russia: Building has been under state control since the Soviet era. Now the religious minority wants it back.


MOSCOW--The imposing pale yellow building with the Soviet stars on its cornices is officially known as the Coal Industry Machine Building Design and Research Institute Joint Stock Co.

But to the robed papal nuncio who raised his chalice this week before a congregation of 400 faithful kneeling on the wet pavement outside its doors, the structure was, is and forever shall be the Roman Catholic Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.

More than a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, a quiet battle of wills continues over control of the church. The 150-year-old structure located in the center of Moscow once served the capital's large ethnic German and Polish Catholic populations. During the Communist era, the church was stripped of its crosses and ornaments, nationalized and turned into a movie house and then into offices for the Soviet Union's thoroughly atheistic national coal monopoly. Now the Catholics want it back.

Despite promises that churches would be returned to their rightful owners after the Soviet collapse, a string of court decisions, apparent bureaucratic indifference and opposition from powerful Russian institutions have stymied the Catholics.

A Mass was celebrated on the structure's porch Sunday for the feast day of Peter and Paul, to symbolically restate the Catholic claim to the building.

"We beseech you, God, for the return of our temple," one of the congregants intoned as the pope's representative in Russia and eight gold-garbed priests prayed with the faithful in a service that lasted more than an hour. The service ended with a symbolic procession around the building.

Among those making the procession was Jadwiga Sinitsyna, 67, a pensioner who was baptized in the church in October 1934 and hopes to worship inside it again before she dies.

The struggle for the property is part of a larger question for the Catholic Church in Russia: how it can eke out a place for itself in a country where many Orthodox Christians regard it as a dangerous interloper, trying to impose the values of Western Christianity on the Slavic heartland.

In the latest sign of tension Monday, the Orthodox Patriarchate issued a statement saying a recent decision to set up Roman Catholic dioceses in Russia amounted to a violation of understandings between the two churches. It accused the Catholic Church of poaching believers and of activities "aimed at expanding the Catholic presence in this country."

Tension between Catholics and Orthodox burst into the open in February when the Vatican decided to change what had been called "apostolic administrations'' in Russia into four full-fledged dioceses.

The Orthodox Church was livid, declaring the move an invasion of its "canonical territory" even though there are far fewer than 1 million Catholics among Russia's 144 million people. The Orthodox patriarch, Alexi II, labeled the Vatican a "foreign government" bent on setting up "illegal government structures" on Russian soil.

In the aftermath, Catholic parishes became targets for demonstrations. Some foreign clerics, including Polish-born Bishop Jerzy Mazur, found themselves cut off from their flocks when they were stripped of visas and denied entry to Russia. The Vatican says it never received an explanation for Mazur's expulsion, or even a reply to its appeal for his reinstatement.

Although Russian law gives no preference to the Orthodox faith, other Christian groups have long complained of discrimination and say that state officials are inclined to carry out the wishes of the Orthodox hierarchy. During his visit to Russia in May, President Bush made a point of meeting with Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz at the U.S. ambassador's residence.

Geraldine Fagan, Moscow correspondent for the Keston News Service, which monitors religious issues in the former Soviet bloc, said that Catholic efforts to regain property such as the Peter and Paul church will be affected by the Orthodox clergy's anti-Catholic campaign.

"It could go either way," she said, adding that authorities may be influenced to act against the Catholic Church's requests. Or, if there is a feeling that "the whole anti-Catholic thing has gone too far," Catholics might actually benefit from the attention and receive the former church building.

The structure continued serving as a church for 20 years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It was transformed into a movie house before being given to the coal industry. In 1991, Moscow authorities indicated that the Catholics could get the building back. But that decision was effectively overruled on the federal level. Instead, in 1994, the structure became an asset of the newly privatized coal institute, known by the cumbersome Russian acronym Giprouglemash.

Roman Catholics' hopes of getting the building back hinge on a court review of whether that privatization was conducted legally, since it involved a structure of cultural importance.

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