EVER SINCE RUSSIA'S Orthodox Church became a separate national body, its relations with the Roman Catholic Church have swung between bad and worse. So it's not surprising that Moscow clerics are on the warpath against the Vatican's decision last week to create four dioceses inside Russia.
This move would seem like a simple organizational matter. After all, it brings existing Catholic parishes under a formalized hierarchy. The czars permitted such an ecclesiastical structure in the 18th century.
Today's Russian Orthodox establishment, though, is aghast. It views the new dioceses as an attack on its franchise as the state-endorsed form of Christianity. Unless the Vatican is stopped, proselytizing surely will come next.
Chauvinistic politicians, too, are weighing in.
"A march to the East via the Catholic Church is actually taking place: NATO expands to the East, the Catholic Church expands to the East," thundered Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian Duma's deputy speaker.
Even though about half of Russia's 145 million people are nominally Orthodox, and Catholics number only about 600,000, the religious hierarchy in Moscow jealously guards its privileges. This has led to government clampdowns on other "alien" faiths -- from Mormons to Hare Krishnas.
Poor relations with the Vatican are complicated because after World War II, Stalin permitted the Russian Orthodox Church to take over the sanctuaries and property of Catholic parishes.
It is commendable that Russia's post-Communist presidents have recognized Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as legitimate beliefs. But if the country wants the rest of the world to take seriously its attempts to move further toward a civil society of consistent laws and equitable outcomes, it cannot allow religious intolerance to thrive, officially or unofficially.