THE POPE IS SHORT ON FREEDOM
by V. Poliakov
Pravoslanvaia moskva, No. 22 (August 1997)

The State Duma of the Russian federation adopted the law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" on third reading on 23 June. The new religious legislation was sorely needed, since the earlier law, adopted in 1990, was quite obsolete. As a result of its imperfection expansion of various kinds of sectarian preachers began, overwhelming a country with a thousand-year Christian culture. Taking advantage of the enormous economic difficultes of the Russian Orthodox church and other traditional confessions of the peoples of Russia, the sectarians took over the radio and television and flooded our cities and towns with tons of their literature, spreading their alien religious values.

The new legislation on freedom of conscience was called to put an end to the sectarian assault. It introduced the concept of traditional Russian religions, identified as Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism as having had decisive influence upon the history and culture of peoples of Russia. The law recognizes the interests of traditional confessions as preeminent. By contrast, all possible modernist cults, many of whom are characterized by extremely destructive, antihumane and totalitarian traits, are set to the side by the law. Such legislation is by no means unique. Legislation that is analogous and in some cases more rigorous, even including the concept of a state confession, exists in a majority of the states of Europe.

Nevertheless after publication of the new draft law an unprecedented campaign to discredit it in the eyes of the world public was unleashed. Representatives of the legislative and executive branches were subjected to massive pressure from foreign politicians. All of this was overt interference in the internal affairs of the Russian state. That is exactly how the decision of the American Congress on suspending financial aid to Russia, if the new religion legislation was adopted, appears. Using crude pressure the USA demands that the president veto the law and tries to impose on Russia its model of religious legislation, disregarding the thousand-year religious and cultural traditions of the people of Russia.

The letter sent by Pope John Paul II to the president of the Russian federation was extremely provocative and ambitious. The Roman pontif somehow is not disturbed by the legislation of other countries where one confession is established as the state religion to the detriment of others. The pope does not speak against the blatant discrimination against Christians and Muslims in Israel, although he considers it his right to dictate his demands to the head of the sovereign Russian state. In his letter the pope expresses "serious concern" about the duma's adoption of the law which, to John Paul II's mind, represents for the Catholic church in Russia, if it were adopted, a "real threat for the normal exercise of pastoral activie and even for its survival."

Such a declaration of the pope does not conform to his recently declared condemnation of proselytism and sisterly feelings with respect to the Orthodox church. Frequently Rome has declared that its pastoral activity in Russia is confined exclusively to the nurturing of the small number of Roman Catholics, who are mostly of German and Polish descent. It would seem that the new law does not impose any such impediments. However in his letter to President Yeltsin John Paul II demands nothing more nor less that recogniztion of Catholicism as one of the traditional Russian religions.

The position of Rome could evoke understandable anxiety of Orthodox believers of Russia. It is generally know what difficult experiences for our nation were caused by the attempts of Catholic Rome to spread Catholicism to Rus by force. The historical memory of the Russian people contains painful recollections of those attacks and fratricidal dissension which were brought to Rus by the Brest Union of 1596 and by the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 17th century. Apparently John Paul II has in mind these attempts of forced conversion to Catholicism, which were tragic for Rus' fortune, when he cynically speaks about the "centuries-old presence and activity in Russia" of the Catholic church.

Besides, the pope's arguments clearly suffer from an absence of logic. Those regions of western Rus where thanks to the use of force Catholicism nevertheless took only slight root and where with some stretch it may be called a tradition are in Ukraine and Belarus after the fall of the USSR. The legislation of Russia on freedom of conscience has nothing to do with them.

The proselytizing activity of Catholics on the canonical territory of the Russian church, which is observed in Russia today, just like the disgraceful trampling on the rights of Orthodox believers by Catholics in western Ukraine and Belarus also can in no way facilitate the "religious peace of the great Russian nation," to which the pope refers in his letter.

The recommendations which John Paul II permits himself to send to the Russian president can only be characterized as crude interference in the internal affairs of the Russian federation, the more so since they proceed from the the head of the sovereign state of the Vatican (which the pope is). John Paul II's letter, in essence, expresses contempt for the supreme legislation authority of Russia, its parliament. The pope casts doubt on the ability of the people of Russia to solve independently questions of the spiritual structure of its society. The pope's call to President Yeltsin "to take appropriate action at the right moment," (i.e. to veto the law that was adopted by an overwhelming majority of deputies) is a blatant attempt to drive a wedge between the executive and legislative authorities and a virtual accusation of legal incompetence.

In the usual Jesuitical way, hiding behind a concern for freedom of conscience in Russia, Catholicism is lobbying in order to secure its position and optimally conducive conditions for its expansion on Russian territory. (tr. by PDS)

Link to Russian text. 2