Russia's fear of Pope halts summit

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The Independent Online
Secret efforts to arrange a meeting between the heads of the world's two largest Christian churches, the Pope and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, have fallen victim at the last minute to a fresh bout of the rivalry and suspicion that divided their institutions for nearly 1,000 years.

For months, Moscow and the Vatican have been talking privately about bringing the two leaders together for discussions to ease their strained relations, which have deteriorated sharply since the end of the Soviet Union.

The summit would have been a historical milestone as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have been at odds since East and West were set against one another by the schism of 1054. They fought and bickered their way through most of the following nine centuries; no meeting has occurred between a Russian patriarch and a pope.

The meeting - supported by liberals in both camps - was to have been held later this month in Austria, one of the destinations on an international tour by the Russian Patriarch, Alexy 11, which begins today. However, sources within his Moscow headquarters yesterday said the church's synod has ruled that the meeting was "premature" and cannot take place in the near future because of several "unresolved issues".

Although the synod's deliberations are traditionally shrouded in secrecy, it is clear that high on the list of mutual grievances is Moscow's anger at what it sees as predatory incursions into Russia by the Vatican in the aftermath of Communism. After re-establishing an official presence in Russia, the Catholic Church has reopened scores of parishes across the country, largely for Catholic ethnic communities - Poles and Germans - who were forced to suppress their religious roots during the Soviet era.

Under the widely-abused 1993 Russian constitution, they are entitled to worship freely, but they have met resistance from a nationalist and isolationist camp within the Orthodox Church, often supported by regional apparatchiks anxious to reinforce the church's unofficial status as an arm of the state.

In general, competition from Rome is frowned on, even though there are well under 1 million Catholics on Russian territory, of whom only a small minority are active church-goers. The Catholics have been accused by church leaders in Moscow of "proselytising".

Further tensions flow from long-running disagreements over the Uniate Catholics in Ukraine and Belarus. The church, which answers to Rome but owes much of its liturgy to Orthodoxy, was forcibly merged with the Russian church by Stalin. It was recognised by Mikhail Gorbachev shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union - prompting many worshippers and clerics to sever their links with Moscow.

But the Moscow Patriarchate continues to treat Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. It suspects the Uniate Catholics of trying to lure away their fellow Slavs by offering worship that resembles Orthodoxy but comes under the Vatican's sway. At times the battle for the souls of Ukrainians has led to violence.

Despite the advent of religious freedom in Russia, relations between the Christian church's two largest houses are significantly worse than they were at the end of the Soviet Union. The current mood of distrust reflects a generally isolationist mood that has seized the Orthodox Church. This is reflected in a tranche of new anti-constitutional laws sweeping across Russia's regions curbing religious freedom.

To this could soon be added a proposed law, due before parliament later this month, which would deny full legal status to minority faiths for 15 years.