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From Russia, Sympathy and Suspicion

Orthodox Eulogies of Pope John Paul Tinged by a Millennium of Mistrust

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page A20

MOSCOW -- For Pavel Busalayev, a 43-year-old painter of religious icons, Pope John Paul II was "an extraordinary man: courageous, bright, full of Christian spirit." But ask Busalayev about the late pope's fervent wish to visit Russia, and whether the next pontiff might realize that goal, and he balks .

"We separate the man from the institution he represented. The institution created real problems for us and insulted us quite a few times in recent years," said Busalayev, who is the son of committed communist parents but secretly became an Orthodox Church believer at the age of 17 in the former Soviet Union. "It was not that we didn't want the pope to come, it was simply that we couldn't accept the Catholic Church and its activities. And that will not change soon."


Pavel Busalayev, a painter of icons, admired the late pope but says the Roman Catholic Church has "created real problems for us and insulted us quite a few times in recent years." (Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)

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Despite the condolences that many Russians, including President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, extended to the Catholic Church when John Paul died, an undercurrent of suspicion, even loathing in some quarters, has tempered the eulogies.

The animus grew out of the Great Schism of 1054 that separated Christianity's western and eastern churches. Tensions have increased since the fall of the Soviet Union.

At that time, the Orthodox Church, claiming 100 million followers, regained its powerful voice in Russian life and began to view the resurgent but much smaller Russian wing of the Roman Catholic Church as having designs on its members.

"Catholics are acting as though there were no other church here," said Father Igor Vyzhanov, acting secretary of the Moscow Patriarchy's Department for External Church Relations. The Russian church has a 1,000-year tradition, he said, "which they don't pay heed to with their missionary activity."

The Catholic Church has about 500,000 followers in Russia and denies it is proselytizing there. A spokesman for the Moscow Archdiocese suggested that the real issue lay in divisions within the Orthodox Church over what kind of relationship it wants with the Vatican and its local representatives.

"Our only goal is to do our pastoral work among our believers," said the Rev. Igor Kovalevsky of the Catholic parish of St. Louis in Moscow. According to Kovalevsky, only about 40 or 50 people convert to Roman Catholicism each year in Moscow and all of them have come to the church of their own volition.

"If we are seeking more Catholics in Moscow involved in this so-called proselytizing, then we are doing a very bad job," he said. "But that's not the real motivation behind the hostility of the Orthodox Church. It's theology and nationalism."

The east-west division began when a representative of the pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, now Istanbul. Through much of the next one thousand years, the Catholic Church and the various eastern Orthodox churches have regarded each other as heretical. Periodically, members have made war on each other. Catholic armies sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

By the 1960s, Russian Christians had bonded in the face of the communist government's hostility to religion and there was a thaw between the Orthodox Church and the Vatican.

But the old hostility resurfaced in newly independent Ukraine in the early 1990s when believers known as Greek Catholics, who had been forced under the umbrella of the Moscow Patriarchy in 1946 by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, began to return to the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes reclaiming church property violently.

The issue still burns the Orthodox and helped fuel Russian hostility toward the new Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, who drew widespread support from the Greek Catholic community in western Ukraine.

"If you look at what happened in Ukraine, even recently, the Catholic Church was acting to divide the country," said Alisa Strukova, a 32-year-old journalist at a movie magazine and a follower of the Orthodox faith.


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