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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

Kremlin and its priests feared John Paul

The death of Pope John Paul II, the harbinger of the downfall of the Warsaw Bloc and the Soviet Union, revealed the fear that the Kremlin and its sidekick - Russia's Orthodox Church leadership - have of him and his successor.

In view of the recent mass protests across Russia against the Kremlin and its devastating social policies and a subsequent political infighting among Russia's political leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage fear that a visit by whoever may be the next pope becomes a catalyst of the public's discontent with the regime and bring about its downfall.

No sooner had the Pontiff died than Russia's Orthodox Church, which barred the Pope from the country, said it would preclude any attempts by Roman Catholics to win followers in Russia, regardless of who becomes the next pope.

"Any active attempts to preach the Roman Catholic faith among those baptized in the Orthodox church is totally unacceptable," said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, according to Reuters.

Considering that three out of four Russians are baptized Orthodox and only one in about 300 is Catholic, this perceived threat is ridiculous.

Some independent analysts in Moscow point out that the real reason the Pope had never won an invitation to visit Russia from Orthodox Patriarch Alexey II was his criticism of Russia's Orthodox Church's role as a collaborator with the Soviet regime.

True, this criticism took place and was fully justified. Only God knows how much dirt the FSB, the KGB's successor, still has on Russia's church leaders recruited as KGB informers.

But this is only one of the reasons for the patriarchate's attitude.

The point is that the patriarchate is continuing its notorious collaboration with the Kremlin, which is now in the hands of the same KGB-types who once used to manipulate the church via the Soviet Union's so-called Committee on Religious Affairs. By preventing the Pope from preaching in Russia, the patriarchate has done a huge favor for the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer himself, and his former peers he now relies upon to consolidate his increasingly despotic rule, remember well the role the Pope played in helping breaking up the Soviet bloc by visiting Communist Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In fact they were recently reminded of it when Georgia and Ukraine, which to a large degree are Orthodox countries and were once part of the Soviet Union, had regime changes and are now allied with the West. The fact that John Paul II has visited both countries did not go unnoticed by the Kremlin, which duly drew paranoid conclusions.

So the patriarchate can take the blame for keeping the Pope away from Russia all it wants; it doesn't change the fact that it was simply toeing the party line set by the Kremlin.

But the patriarchate's statement is more than just a face-saving attempt by the Kremlin, which was trying to hide its fear of Pope John Paul II behind a "principled" position of Russia's Orthodox Church.

To get an idea how scared the Kremlin really is, consider a rare warning Dmitry Medvedev, Mr. Putin's chief of staff, issued last week in an interview published in Expert magazine quoted by the Associated Press.

"If we do not manage to consolidate elites, Russia may disappear as a unified state," which would make the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union seem like a "kindergarten party."

Motivated by ill-conceived sense of self-preservation, the Kremlin is trying to scare the populace into accepting a further tightening of the screws. Hence, its wariness of a high-profile papal visit.

Mr. Putin is simply loath to take a chance on the next pope's visiting Russia and inspiring courage and love of freedom in its people as Pope John Paul II did in the people of Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia.



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