Religious Leaders From Former USSR Meet

Religious leaders from former Soviet republics are meeting this week with the aim of strengthening religious tolerance — but the meeting excludes Catholics, accused by the Russian Orthodox Church of trying to poach converts.

More than 300 religious leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States — a loose grouping of most of the former Soviet republics — are to participate in the conference beginning Tuesday, said Metropolitan Kirill, a Russian Orthodox official.

But the conference will only include what Russia recognizes officially as the "traditional religions" of Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

"Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism have existed (in the region) for a thousand years ... the rest were exported to us," said Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church's external relations department.

The statement reflected the tensions that have arisen since the fall of the Soviet Union, in which the predominant religions of Russia and the region complain that other religions are trying to convert people on their territory.

In particular, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, has accused Greek Catholics in western Ukraine, who retain Eastern-rite rituals but recognize the pope's supremacy, of having expanded into traditionally Orthodox eastern and southern Ukraine.

There are about 6 million Catholics in Ukraine, a predominantly Orthodox nation of 48 million.