Siberian Flock Misses Its Shepherd

Caritas-Siberia Director Tells of Challenges

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MADRID, Spain, OCT. 28, 2002 ( Catholics in eastern Siberia are feeling the loss of their bishop, Jerzy Mazur, who was expelled by the Russian authorities, says a Caritas official.

During a visit to Spain, Andrey Bayanov, director of Caritas-Siberia Health Projects, said an atmosphere of fear hangs over the region, given the campaign against Catholics by the authorities and some members of the Orthodox Church.

«The political situation has changed since February, when the patriarch of the Russian Church began saying that the spiritual and charitable activity of the Catholic Church, and of Caritas in particular, is proselytism in Russian territory,» Bayanov said. «The strong anti-Catholic campaign in Russia began at that moment.»

Since February, Bishop Mazur and five priests have been expelled from Russia.

«We have been very worried lately, because the majority of Catholic priests in Russia and Caritas directors are foreigners,» Bayanov said. «We fear for our evangelizing and charitable activity. Every day we are afraid that some priest might be expelled from Russia.»

«Unfortunately, there are few Russian priests in my country and because of this, if we do not have the companionship and presence of our foreign Catholics, we would be left without moral and spiritual assistance,» he added.

«It seems very strange, but at the most ordinary level, relations are very close among Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims. We have no problems for friendship and cordiality,» he said. «It is at the level of politicians that there are serious contradictions. There are also strong contradictions within the Orthodox Church.

«In Novosibirsk, there are Orthodox parishes that are very friendly toward Catholics, and there are other Russian Orthodox parishes that combat Catholics for reasons of proselytism, due to the statement of the Orthodox patriarch that all Catholic evangelization and charitable activity is proselytism.»

Caritas works especially in the medical-social field in Russia. «Now we are centered on four projects,» Bayanov said. «The first is to create an educational center for social workers, both of the government as well as of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. Russian social workers do not have our international experience to be able to create a good system of social services.»

«Another is to create a center for children with autism,» he said. «Unfortunately, there is no financial aid or assistance for autistic children in Russia. As the programs are very complex, from the point of view of treatment, a special center is necessary, in a special environment, for the more than 500 children with autism in the Novosibirsk region. These children cannot go to just any school.

«The third project addresses the epidemiological situation in Russia. The mortality rate in our region is very high, as well as illnesses caused by alcoholism, drugs, oncological sicknesses, such as AIDS or tuberculosis, and mental disorders. It is twice as high as in the whole of Russia, and five times higher than in Europe. In Siberia, 80% of prisoners are infected with tuberculosis, 20% with AIDS, and 40% are drug addicts.»

«The last project is the creation of a multidisciplinary center for adolescents,» he concluded.

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