A document published by the Vatican Press Office explains that the presence of the Catholic Church in Russia is not the result of "proselytism," as some Orthodox leaders claim, but of deportations under the czars and Stalin.
The note lists numerous historical facts that prove the significant centuries-long Catholic presence in the territory, thus countering Orthodox assertions that the Catholic presence before the Communist era was virtually nonexistent.
The Vatican adds that the presence of Catholics in Russia relied on the Archdiocese of Mohilev, created Dec. 3, 1773, by Empress Catherine II, without the Holy See's prior agreement. It embraced the Russian Empire, making it the largest Catholic ecclesiastical circumscription at the time.
The document says that the 1858 yearbook of the Archdiocese of Mohilev records the presence of 112,799 Catholics in the whole of Russia. There were 21 parishes in the European part, and about 10 in the Asian, the yearbook stated.
The Vatican document states that with his April 28, 1905, Decree of Tolerance, Czar Nicholas II established the basic criteria to regulate reciprocal relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the Russian Empire.
"In 1915, there were more than 80 parishes with almost 220,000 Catholic faithful registered in the European part of present-day Russia, and in the Siberian part, more than 40 parishes with almost 140,000 faithful," the Vatican document continues.
These data do not include information related to the Catholic Diocese of Tiraspol, with its see at Saratow, which also embraced Ukraine.
On Dec. 1, 1921, the Apostolic Vicariate of Siberia was established. It included the territory of central Siberia and the Far East.
In the early 1920s there were 1.65 million Catholics in Russia, supported by 580 parishes or churches and 397 priests, the Vatican states. Until the 1950s, the number of Catholics increased significantly, because of deportations to Siberia and Kazakhstan.
"Even today, given the present situation, it is difficult to define the exact number of Catholics present in the territory of the Russian Federation," the Vatican explained. "It can be affirmed, without being far from the truth, that at present the number of Catholics in the whole Russian Federation is around 1,300,000."
In light of the historical data, the document notes that with his decision to create the new dioceses, the Pope "does not try, as such, to introduce new ecclesiastical structure in those territories, but rather to reconstitute those already existing, updating them to the present situation."
The Vatican explains that the increase in the number of Russian Catholic faithful is not due to Orthodox faithful entering the Catholic Church. "Rather, the new Catholics come from environments that are usually distant from all religions," the press office statement said.
It continued: "One cannot accept the comparison some make between the phenomenon of proselytism and the missionary obligation of the Church. The disciples of Christ cannot forget the Lord's command to the Apostles: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'"
Lastly, the document tries to ease Orthodox fears of a Catholic invasion of Russia. It explains that the communities are too small to "alter the cultural identity of a country that is traditionally considered Orthodox."
On the contrary, the text continues, "the ecclesial rebirth that followed the fall of a state system contrary to the dignity and freedom of man is an enterprise that requires unity of effort to take the word of life and the gifts of grace to those who do not know Christ, and the Gospel, in the communion that flows from the one baptism."
Britain's Keston Institute, which tracks religious issues in the former Soviet Union, says about two-thirds of Russia's 144 million people consider themselves Orthodox, the Associated Press noted.