Authorities in Russia have returned a church to the Catholic community after a 25-year wait.
Bishop Nikolaj Dubinin, O.F.M. Conv., celebrated the first solemn liturgy in the restored church, a quarter of a century after the first official request for the restitution of the property.
Dubinin, 47, is an auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mother of God at Moscow.
The church was originally built in 1893 by Polish Catholics deported to Novgorod, a historic city around 120 miles from St. Petersburg.
Bolsheviks destroyed the church in 1933, turning it into the Rodina (Homeland) cinema. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, local Catholics began to use parts of the former church for celebrations.
Between 2009 and 2010, Catholics secured federal funds to restore the church’s towers. They then succeeded in having the building recognized as a “monument of federal value.” Finally, they made several requests to use the church again.
While Catholics are thought to account for only 0.5% of Russia’s 144 million population, the Catholic presence in Novgorod stretches back centuries.
Historical records suggest that as early as the 12th century, there was a church dedicated to St. Olaf for Baltic and Scandinavian merchants and another named in honor of St. Peter for the German-speaking community.
The city’s Catholic community was dispersed in the 15th century, reconstituted in the 19th century, and dispersed once again in the 20th century under communism.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Russia is concerned not only with property restitution but also with a new law that critics say limits religious freedom for minority religions.
The State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, approved amendments to the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations on March 24.
The law requires foreign clergy to have “re-certification from a Russian religious organization,” while those already in the country are exempt from the requirement.
It also obliges churches to submit an annual list of members to the Ministry of Justice, among other provisions.
The amendments still need to be approved by the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament.
Meeting in Saratov, southwestern Russia, on March 10-11, the country’s Catholic bishops noted the positive aspects of the law, but also expressed reservations.
A statement on the bishops’ website said: “The meeting participants discussed the draft law on amendments to the law ‘On freedom of conscience and on religious associations.’ They are pleased with the amendments made to the draft as part of the first reading of the draft law in the State Duma.”
“At the same time, they are still concerned about some aspects of this project, including the introduction of additional education and certification of newly arriving ministers, while, due to the lack of standards, it is impossible to prepare for it.”