Novgorod church returned to Catholics amid new limits to religious freedom

The church of Saints Peter and Paul was built in 1893, but closed by the Bolsheviks in 1933, who tuned it into a cinema. The presence of Catholics in Novgorod dates back to the 9th century. New legal obligations: ministers of worship who study abroad must undergo "re-education" upon returning home. Concerns among Buddhists, Protestants and Catholics. Educational institutions must also receive a special "educational certificate" from state bodies.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - After 25 years of official requests, the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Novgorod, the ancient city in the north of Russia, 200 km from St. Petersburg, has been returned as the property of the Catholic Church.

The deed of concession was signed on March 15, and celebrated by the faithful with a solemn liturgy by the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Moscow, the Russian Msgr. Nikolaj Dubinin (responsible for the northern part of the diocese), who in the previous days had carried out a pastoral visit in the area.

The church stands on the central street of St. Petersburg. Novgorod is the city where the Russians first joined the Scandinavian Varangians to form a new state in the 9th century. Catholics deported from Poland (about two thousand people) managed to build their church in 1893, but it was closed by the Bolsheviks in 1933, who used the building as a cinema entitled Rodina, "La Patria". In 1996 a small community of local Catholics gathered again and began to use some spaces of the former church for celebrations.

In 2009-2010, Catholics obtained federal funds to restore the external towers of the church, destroyed during the Soviet regime, and were able to have the building recognized as a "monument of federal value". After lengthy procedures, Catholics can now finally enjoy their church in absolute freedom.

Catholics have actually been present in this city since the first centuries of its formation. Already in the 11th century we have news of a church of s. Olaf for merchants from the Baltic and Scandinavian territories and one of s. Peter for the Germans, in the following century. The Catholic community was dispersed after the fifteenth century, to be reborn in the nineteenth, and again after the end of communism.

Yet there is no lack of new restrictions on the religious freedom of Catholics and other minority religious communities in Russia. Despite several appeals and numerous corrections, the Russian State Duma has in fact approved the corrections to the law on freedom of conscience and religious association. These oblige religious personnel who receive formation abroad to be "re-educated" upon returning home, receiving a "new professional certification" under state control. The only concession obtained was the retroactive non-application of the law, so those who have already finished their studies abroad can continue to carry out their ministry without further limitations.

The representatives of the Russian Jewish community tried to interpret the new law with a certain optimism, considering it a "stimulus to develop the theological sciences in Russian universities". Protestants and Buddhists, on the other hand, declared that the new rules are made to "tie hands” of pastors of the communities. Even the Russian Catholic bishops, gathered in Saratov in the assembly of the Episcopal Conference on 10-11 March, expressed their perplexity about the approved norms, while acknowledging some positive corrections. Above all, the certification procedures (mandatory also for foreign missionaries) are unconvincing in the absence of statutes and structures that make them credible.

The amendment to the law appears even more worrying in light of another provision approved on March 16 by the Duma, which requires any educational institution, including sports and recreational clubs, to obtain a special "educational certificate" from state bodies. The law, which has yet to be signed by the president, will impose as of 1 June next the obligation to "agree every educational program and every event with the state authorities", who will have the right to reject or stop any type of course, exercise or educational activity considered "unacceptable for the educational purposes of the Russian Federation", imposing a worrying limit on freedom of speech and cultural expression. (V.R.)