For Christians, Palm Sunday is a day of quiet reflection that commemorates Christ's entry into Jerusalem before His passion. But the 1,500 members of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) who gathered for Palm Sunday in Moscow's Slavyanskaya Square late last month were filled with belligerence and anger. The ROC faithful, represented by a motley crew of nationalist groups and pro-Kremlin Duma deputies, were protesting the rise of non-Orthodox faiths in the country, branding the Catholic presence in particular as "a new Vatican crusade against Russia." Similar rallies took place in a score of Russian cities that day.
Ever since the fall of communism back in 1991, the ROC has been striving to fill the country's ideological void. The fact that its membership includes President Vladimir Putin and top state officials is testament to its spectacular comeback from Communist suppression. But ROC leaders, mostly appointed by the Communist Party and the KGB in Soviet times, are widely viewed as reactionaries, and disenchanted Russians are seeking spiritual guidance elsewhere. The main enemy, the ROC feels, is the rich and powerful Catholic Church.
The relationship between the ROC and the Roman Catholic Church has never been easy. After some 500 years of bickering, the two faiths formally parted ways in 1054. The fascination with the Church of Rome is recent. "A fierce war for minds and souls is going on," says Patriarch Alexy II. "The future of our state depends on who wins this war." In the past six weeks, a wave of anti-Catholicism has rolled through Russia. The ROC successfully lobbied to ban construction of new Catholic churches in three regions. Last month, an Italian monk who had served for 12 years as the pastor of the Catholic Church in Vladimir in central Russia had his visa quietly withdrawn as he left on a flight to Milan. The Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB, also prevented a Polish bishop from returning to his diocese in Siberia.
The sudden intemperance of the attacks seems to be related to the Vatican's decision in February to upgrade its four apostolic administrations in Russia to full dioceses. The ROC, which routinely accuses the Vatican of poaching its believers, interprets the move as an escalation of Catholic encroachments. But there's more at stake, says author Alexander Nezhni, a religious-affairs commentator: "The ROC is reasserting itself as the exclusive state church of Russia." Nationalist forces, bent on recreating the Russian Empire, see the roc as a natural vehicle for bringing traditionally Orthodox Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova back into Moscow's fold. And the ROC sees the nationalists as its natural ally. "The pattern of events suggests strongly that the Kremlin is tacitly backing the ROC's aspirations," maintains Nezhni. As evidence he cites the fact that government agencies ranging from the Defense Ministry to the Ministry of Education have signed agreements with the ROC granting it the exclusive right to the provision of spiritual guidance among staff in violation of church-state separation laws.
Though the Russian constitution guarantees equal rights to all religions, the ROC has always been more equal than the others. But there could be problems if the Kremlin wants to use the ROC as the basis for national cohesion. In multiethnic and multifaith Russia, the number of practicing ROC worshippers has never been more than 5% since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And ROC parishioners increasingly flee to other faiths. Anyway, the Catholics, who number only 600,000 out of a population of 143 million, will always remain a minority. "If ROC leaders seek administrative measures to suppress competition in the religious market, it means they don't trust in their own religion," says Father Igor Kowalewski, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Russia.
At the Palm Sunday rally in Slavyanskaya Square, Duma Deputy Sergei Shashurin demanded that the ROC be christened the official Russian state religion. Such a fusion of state and church was decreed in Russia by Peter the Great late in the 17th century. It was a bad idea then, and it's a bad idea now.