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During the only previous meeting between the Pope and the Russian leader-- in December 1991-- the question of religious liberty was at the forefront of discussions. A highly placed source at the Vatican suggested that the same topic would be high on the agenda for the coming meeting, in view of recent complaints that the new Russian law on religious organizations has restricted the activities of some Catholic pastors. Vatican-watchers have also speculated that the visit might have some effect on the tense relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Vatican sources say that the Holy See has generally appreciated Yeltsin's posture regarding the religious-freedom bill; the Russian leader vetoed an earlier, more restrictive version of the bill. Today, Vatican diplomats argue that the primary problem with the new law lies not in the wording of the statute but in the interpretation placed on the law-- a position which allows them to praise Yeltsin while criticizing the law itself.
The tensions between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church center on the situation in Ukraine, where the resurgence of the Eastern-rite Catholic Church (which was forcibly suppressed under the Soviet regime) has provoked complaints of "proselytes" from Orthodox authorities. The re-establishment of the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy has chilled relations with the Moscow Patriarchate, which sees the Catholic Church as a competitor in Ukraine.
While President Yeltsin has no official role in Orthodox Church affairs, observers believe that he might serve as a go-between to help reinvigorate Catholic-Orthodox contacts, since he is well known as a close friend and adviser of the Russian Patriarch Alexei II. There is little doubt that the Russian president will report to the Patriarch on his discussions with the Pope, although Vatican officials do not expect any breakthrough to result from their talks.
Often they can now renew their visas only for three months at atime, rather than for twelve months as in the past, Catholic Bishop Joseph Werth in Novosibirsk told Keston News Service in a long-distance telephone interview on 13 November. "About half of my priests have had difficulties" connected with their visas,he said.
The bishop said that the visa problems began about two years ago and became sharply worse at the beginning of 1997-- "just as we were being told that preparations were underway for the new law on religion." Especially burdensome, he said, is the requirement that foreign priests return all the way to their home countries -- not just to any foreign country bordering the Russian Federation-- to apply for new visas. For priests and nuns from Germany or the United States, that can mean four expensive, time-consuming trips every year. Priests from Poland and other former Soviet-bloc countries have received milder treatment, he said.
At present foreign priests are indispensable to the Roman Catholic Church in Russia because of the lack of qualified Russian-born clergy. The Catholic seminary in St Petersburg, closed generations ago by the Bolsheviks, was allowed to reopen only in 1993. Serving in Werth's territory, which stretches from the Urals to the Pacific, are eight priests from the United States alone.
Another problem, said Bishop Werth, is abrupt, arbitrary increases in the rental fees which local secular authorities require his parishes to pay for the land which their church buildings occupy. (In spite of the 1993 constitution, in practice most Russian provinces still do not have private property in land.) A year ago the rental fee for the land under the newly built Catholic cathedral in Novosibirsk was about 3 million rubles, he said, but recently it was raised to 50 million rubles (about 8,600 dollars or 5,300 pounds sterling). Keston asked whether the authorities have taken into consideration the fact that the Catholics used to own their own church in Novosibirsk before it was confiscated and demolished by the Soviet regime. Werth replied that the local administration refuses to recognize formally that the site used by the Catholics today is compensation for the one seized from them decades ago.
Roman Catholic priests west of the Urals are having fewer difficulties than those under Bishop Werth, according to the Catholic chancellor for the European part of Russia. Father Victor Bartsevich told Keston on November 14 that the officials in the city of Moscow seem to be following a policy which is the reverse of that in Siberia: they are granting only three-month visas to priests from Poland, but full-year visas to priests of other nationalities. In European Russian cities other than Moscow, he said, Catholic priests are not having visa problems.
Bishop Paul Dahdah, interviewed by the Italian daily Avvenire, reported that his people have been reduced to dire poverty as a result of the American-led embargo. "It is an unimaginable situation," he said; "not a day goes by when someone does not knock on my door asking for help-- for something to eat, or some medicine which they cannot find." He said that one sad consequence of the embargo has been the desire among younger Iraqi Christians to emigrate-- a problem which, he observed, is common in the lands of the Middle East.
"Is anyone thinking about the children who are dying of hunger?" the bishop asked. "Or are they allowing political and economic considerations to lead them into neglecting the common good of the people? Everywhere I turn, I hear talk about bombing and military solutions to settle the issues. What has happened to the human conscience?"
The bishop said that the embargo is "unjust" because its practical effect is that the people of Iraq "are being held hostage: Muslims and Christians."