03/26/2008, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Gorbachev Catholic? Former president denies

by Maria Anikina
Former Soviet president says news reports about his move to Catholicism are false. Rumours that began circulating after he paid an unexpected visit to the St Francis of Assisi Basilica are pure “fantasies.”

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev denied claims that he converted to Catholicism, calling reports to such effect in Western media fantasies.

Rumours about a “secret” conversion had begun circulating after Mr Gorbachev and his daughter Irina visited the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi (Italy), home to the saint’s relics. Italian daily La Stampa called the event a ‘”spiritual perestroika”.

“Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies—I can't use any other word—about my secret Catholicism, citing my visit to the Sacro Convento friary, where the remains of St. Francis of Assisi lie,” Gorbachev said. Instead he insisted that he undertook the trip, not as a pilgrim, but as “tourist.”

These “fantasies” were fuelled by some statements the former leader made following his visit. After half hour meditation in the basilica he said the story of the saint played a fundamental role in his life. “It was through St Francis that I arrived at the church,” he said.

Gorbachev, who comes from an Orthodox family and was baptised as a child, said that the respected all religions and was conscious of the crucial role they play and continue to play in society and history.

In the past he visited Orthodox monasteries in Russia and abroad, Catholic and Protestant churches, synagogues in Israel and mosques in Arab countries as well as Buddhist monasteries, but “nobody related me to this or that belief during all these years. To avoid misunderstandings I would like to sayI was atheist and I stay atheist".

For the Moscow Patriarchate reactions to the former president’s statements right after his visit to the basilica are emotional.

“In Italy, he spoke in emotional terms, rather than in terms of faith,” a Patriarchate spokesman said. “He is still on his way to Christianity.

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