ROME, JULY 16, 2002 ( The Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate's accusations of proselytism are really an excuse to "impede the Catholic Church from spreading" in Russia, a French Orthodox theologian says.

Olivier Clement said that there might have been cases of excessive zeal in evangelization, especially in Polish Catholic circles. But he contended that the real reason for the Orthodox reaction is that "at present Russia is withdrawing into herself, despite the fact she is recovering in the economic realm and from the psychological point of view."

"Meanwhile, Putin is trying to reinforce his popular base," Clement said in an interview published by the Religious Information Service. "This is why he considers the support of the Orthodox Church fundamental, with a nostalgia for the former Russia, when church and state were identified with each other."

The theologian believes that the Holy See's elevation of the four apostolic administrations in Russia into dioceses earlier this year constitutes an obstacle for dialogue with the Orthodox.

"One must keep in mind that there is a very close relation between the idea of nation and the role of the Church in Russia," Clement explained. "Historically, the Orthodox Church is very linked to the life of the nation. This is why the creation of the Catholic dioceses in Russian territory is seen by Moscow's patriarch as Western aggression."

To overcome the present situation, one must wait for "another generation among Russian Christian intellectuals and a renewal of the episcopate, which has already started," the Frenchman said.

"There are people and groups who are open, but the phenomenon continues to be quite marginal. For the time being emphasis must be placed above all on the ecumenism of friendship," he continued.

He added: "I do not see possibilities in the short term for a dialogue at the official level between Catholics and Orthodox in Russia."

Clement further observed: "Catholicism has not experienced totalitarian oppression as Russian Orthodoxy has, which produces in it, at the same time, a feeling of inferiority and superiority."

"Western Catholicism is perceived as more intelligent, more educated, more seductive and, because of this, more likely to attract many more people, especially intellectuals, if allowed to affirm itself in Russia. The Orthodox Church wants to avoid this happening," he concluded.