Following a February order by Russian President Vladimir Putin to conduct checks on NGOs in Russia, the local Catholic Church has seen a number of raids on its parishes and charities. Putin is seen here with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II in this 2008 CNS file photo. CNS photo/Itar-Tass/Kremlin Press, Reuters

Russian Catholics surprised at government raids on churches, charities

By  Jonathan Luxmoore, Catholic News Service
  • April 12, 2013

OXFORD, England - Russia's Catholic Church expressed surprise and concern after a wave of raids on its parishes and charities, part of a government clampdown on organizations with foreign links.

"The Catholic Church is classified as an organization benefitting from foreign funds," explained Fr. Kirill Gulbunov, spokesman for the Moscow archdiocese, who added, "We can't help feeling surprised that associations linked with our Church are viewed as possible sources of extremism or terrorist activity."

On April 9, security agents raided the Moscow offices of Caritas, the Catholic charitable agency. On April 3, government agents "inspected" Caritas headquarters in St. Petersburg.

Gulbunov said the archdiocese had not been notified of the planned raid. He said a Catholic parish in Orel, Russia, had been told it was to be "checked" just before the raid took place.

"The people responsible have evidently received a very broad list of organizations to watch as part of this nationwide operation," the Russian priest said. "Although we can't say whether local authorities are deliberately using the operation against the Catholic Church, it has caused surprise and consternation."

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered checks on thousands of nongovernmental organizations and the seizing of computers and documents, under a July 2012 law requiring groups with outside funding to register as "foreign agents."

On March 15, a Catholic parish in Novocherkassk was ordered to pay a 450,000-rouble ($14,600 U.S.) fine for allegedly failing fire safety standards.

Fr. Aleksi Polisko, rector of the city's Most Blessed Virgin Mary parish, which has just 50 regular Massgoers, told Agence France-Presse the fine was around 150 times the parish's weekly income, but said the local procurator had threatened to close his church unless it was paid within a month.

The director of Caritas in St. Petersburg, Natalya Pevtsova, told the Interfax news agency that officials had "examined everything ... from the state of our toilets to our charity documents," during the raid of her offices.

Russia's million-strong Catholic Church has long complained of discrimination in Russia and protested when a Moscow charity house belonging to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity was bulldozed in 2011 and a Catholic parish in Pskov was barred from building its church because of "legal technicalities."

German-born Bishop Clemens Pickel of Saratov, Russia, told Germany's KNA news agency he believed the raids were legal but predicted they would place the Catholic Church, "intentionally or not, in a bad light in the eyes of the people."

Russian newspapers said the Russian Orthodox Church had not been affected by the raids.

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