Dec 5, 2009 | 21:19 GMT

4 mins read

Russia, Vatican City: Renewing Relations

Russia and the Vatican established full diplomatic ties on Dec. 3. The move follows the visit by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to Rome and is a product of behind-the-scenes negotiations undertaken by Italian President Silvio Berlusconi. Russia and the Vatican will establish full embassies. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican have only held subdiplomatic relations since the fall of the Soviet Union. The move signals that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has decided to make peace with the Catholic Church. But the motivation is not reconciliation, rather expansion of its influence. The apparent reconciliation would seem to indicate that the ROC, under its new head, Kirill I, takes a more pragmatic approach to interfaith relations than his predecessor, Alexei II. The ROC is closely tied to the Russian security forces, especially the FSB. This is a vestige of the Soviet era when the FSB used the Church to control and keep eyes on potential dissidents. The relationship between the ROC and the Catholic Church has been a rocky one for millennia. Throughout its existence, Russia has faced threats from Western Europe, often instigated by successions of Catholic powers. As such, Imperial and Soviet Russia considered the Catholic Church as an infiltration into Russia that goes beyond religion and into geopolitics. The ROC also vehemently refuses to acknowledge the Vatican on a deeply fundamental level: As the largest of the Orthodox Churches, the ROC considers itself the modern descendant of the Byzantium legacy and therefore a rival to the Vatican. The Cold War seemed to prove in Russia's collective mind that Moscow's fears were well grounded. Under Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church took an active role in spurring anti-Communist movements across Central Europe, especially in Poland — John Paul II's homeland. Many Russians who remember the Soviet Union fondly — with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin being one of them — can point to the role of the Catholic Church in Poland as an example of the power and reach of the Vatican. This fear of Vatican's influence spurred former Russian President Boris Yeltsin — not known for being anti-Western — to sign a law in 1997 that severely limited the ability of the Catholic Church (along with any other church outside of the Orthodox, Jewish and Islamic faiths) to have any meaningful presence in Russia. The Catholic Church has also repeatedly been refused recognition as one of the main legitimate religions in Russia, despite the fact that it has more adherents (around 750,000) than some of the religions that do receive official recognition (such as Buddhism). Under Kirill I, however, the ROC is taking a much more active role abroad, with emphasis no longer being internal dissidents. Part of this focus is the unification of ROC with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which used to be independent from the ROC and tended to Russian Orthodox adherents outside of Moscow. Thus, the deal with the Catholic Church should be seen from this context: The ROC is looking to build relations with the Vatican that can allow it to operate better outside of Russia, especially in Catholic countries of Europe like Spain, France and Italy. Interestingly, the Catholic Church did not demand repeal of the 1997 laws before the diplomatic relations were reset, undoubtedly due to political pressure from Italy's government. The question is what will Rome get from Moscow for its role in making the deal possible.

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