In Russian Church, Still an Undercurrent of Animosity to the Vatican and the Pope

Moscow, Russia - Last August, a delegation from the Vatican came here bearing an old Russian Orthodox icon that Pope John Paul II had kept in his private chambers for more than a decade. Already in the twilight of his papacy, the pope hoped the return of the icon, known as the Mother of God of Kazan, would at last clear the way for one of his lasting but unfulfilled desires: a papal visit to Russia.

It did not. Even before the icon arrived, the leader of Russian Orthodoxy, Patriarch Aleksy II, dismissed the gesture and ruled out a visit from the pope, as he had before.

He told President Vladimir V. Putin that "it is one of many copies," and not the original icon, which first appeared in the city of Kazan in 1579 and was revered as a source of miracles before disappearing after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

"For that reason," he added, "there is no need for the pope himself to bring it."

John Paul's death is, officially, being mourned in Russia as the passing of a man Mr. Putin called "an outstanding public figure whose name signifies the whole era." But beneath the public expressions of condolences runs an undercurrent of animosity and suspicion that divided the leaders of the world's two largest Christian churches: Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox.

Despite the widely held view that he contributed to the collapse of Communism and that this freed Orthodox believers in Russia from seven decades of state suppression, the pope never managed to achieve a reconciliation with the patriarch, let alone a healing of the millennium-long schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

On the contrary, relations only worsened after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the Orthodox Church rebuilt its stolen churches and sought to re-establish its spiritual authority, the Vatican and its charismatic leader came to be seen as a threat, one aimed at undermining the Orthodox faith.

Orthodox leaders have repeatedly accused the Vatican of proselytizing, despite Catholic assertions that the church was simply ministering to Russia's roughly 600,000 Catholics. Archpriest Vsevold Chaplin, a senior Orthodox official, said on Tuesday that Catholic priests and nuns had persisted in seeking converts. "In order to increase the level of relations, we expect the Roman Catholic Church to return to the practice of cooperation, not competition," he said in a telephone interview.

John Paul, who made international travel a centerpiece of his papacy, visited other former Soviet republics, and in November, he met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Orthodox leader in Istanbul.

But in Russia, where the Orthodox Church's political influence has grown significantly, the patriarch's opposition effectively squelched any hope of a visit, despite invitations from the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who met him while still head of the Communist Party in 1990, and from Mr. Putin, who met him twice. Mr. Putin, after his last meeting in the Vatican in 2003, acknowledged that while he wanted to be the host of the first visit to Russia ever by a Roman Catholic pope, he had deferred to the patriarch.

Mr. Gorbachev, in an interview on Tuesday, praised the pope, saying John Paul had opposed Communism but had also criticized capitalism. This, Mr. Gorbachev said, supported the policy of perestroika that opened Soviet society. At the same time, he added, the Vatican contributed to the tensions with Russian Orthodoxy.

"The Catholic Church was not very delicate when it came to the Orthodox Church, especially in the post-Soviet period," he said.

The low point in relations came in 2002, when the Vatican elevated the status of its four apostolic administrative divisions in Russia into traditional dioceses headed by bishops. The Russian government, at the urging of the Orthodox Church, expelled or denied visas to a number of Catholic priests and denied visas to others.

The Orthodox Church is sending a delegation to the funeral on Friday, led by Metropolitan Kirill, the head of external relations, but Aleksy declined to attend. Father Vsevold said it was not normal practice for the patriarch to attend funerals of religious or political leaders abroad.

Mr. Putin also opted not to attend. Russia will be represented by his prime minister, Mikhail Y. Fradkov.

Even in death, John Paul has managed to inflame hostility in some quarters here. On Wednesday, Aleksei V. Mitrofanov, a nationalist member of Parliament, proposed restricting news media coverage of the pope's death and funeral, saying, "One cannot help but see this colossal propaganda campaign favors the Vatican and Catholicism." A vote on the proposal failed to pass.

Anatoly A. Krasikov, the director of the Center of Social and Religious Studies at the Institute of Europe, said the Orthodox Church had missed a historic opportunity. "Nobody knows whether the next pope will be that insistent in offering a helping hand to the Orthodox Church," he said. "Personally, I think we wasted a chance when we had it to establish cooperation between the Christians of the world."

Others attributed the tensions to Russian insecurities, deeply rooted in the country's history.

"I am almost certain that the first Slavic pope was not allowed into the Russian Church's congregation for the same reason that earlier had driven the Communist Party to cover up Western voices: fear of comparison," Pyotr Romanov, a political commentator, wrote in a pointed essay published by the official Russian Information Agency on Monday.

"Orthodox hierarchs could not bear the thought of the pope in a crowded Moscow square or, even worse, in the Christ the Savior Cathedral."