Putin Aims to Keep Tight Reins on Religions

Hostility Against Catholic Church May Be Rising

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ROME, APR. 25, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Vladimir Putin´s changes in the Presidential Commission for Religion indicates that Russia is moving toward greater secularization, a move that could spell trouble for the Catholic Church, observers say.

The Russian president has put Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Mefodi of Voronezh and Lipetsk on the commission. The bishop became famous following a 1992 report in the Russian emigrant newspaper Russkaya Mysl, in which Archbishop Khrizostom of Vilnius branded him a KGB agent and an atheist. Metropolitan Mefodi neither confirmed nor denied the accusations.

Putin «has entrusted a secular body to draw up a religious policy» whose principal features will be a strong emphasis on the secular nature of the Russia state and the equality of all confessions before the law,» reported the Keston News Service, an agency that specializes in monitoring religious liberty in the former Soviet Union.

The agency noted, however, that Putin has made few clear pronouncements on religious policy. «Religion is evidently not among his highest priorities,» Keston said.

«Unlike party apparatchiki Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Putin´s background is with the security services, and state security is his natural concern,» the agency commented. «Thus, religion usually becomes a priority only when it seems to impinge upon security issues.»

Experts connected with England-based Keston say that foreign missionaries, especially those from the United States, are regarded as agents of Western powers, bent on promoting anti-Russian values among the citizens.

This concern has resulted in the denial of visas and last year´s expulsions of foreign missionaries, as well as the adoption of a new provincial decree to regulate missionary activity.

President Putin´s religious policy seems to be in line with the last phase of Boris Yeltsin´s. It encourages the formation of a coalition among the «traditional» confessions, which in turn are expected to support the consolidation of the state. Those that fail to do so, risk serious difficulties with the authorities.

«It is likely,» the Keston agency said, «that the Roman Catholic Church will in practice be increasingly dealt with as a nontraditional confession, even if it is formally considered a traditional one. In recent years, two Catholic bishops were denied Russian citizenship and were told by the authorities that they only way they would be accepted would be if they married a Russian.»

As a result, «the bishops cannot take legal responsibility for their apostolic administrations, and the Catholic Church is unable to register the latter,» the Keston report continued.

«In addition to ongoing difficulties in winning back property confiscated by the Soviet authorities, an increase in hostility toward the Catholic presence in Russia is also indicated by recent incidents of refusal and curtailment of visas for visiting clergy,» Keston added.

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