A new Catholic cathedral in eastern Siberia will promote the revival of Christian life in the region, as well as helping change Siberia's image abroad, according to a Catholic official in the region."Siberia is a challenge for us," according to Jozef Weclawski, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church's east Siberian apostolic administration. "The stereotype of Siberia carries very sad associations of snow and ice, exile, penal servitude, and extermination. This is historically truthful—and even today, there are many large cities here with no priests or nuns."Historians estimate that up to 12 million Soviet and East European citizens, including many Christians—lay and clergy—died in Siberian labor camps under communist rule.The Polish-born priest was speaking to ENI after the dedication of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Irkutsk, a city of 700,000 inhabitants about 2,500 miles east of Moscow. He said the church hoped that the new cathedral would become a center of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics from Siberia and abroad, as well as a base for the church's pastoral and administrative work in the former Soviet territory."Until now, our gatherings have taken place in rest centers or rented rooms, but now we have a permanent place of our own," Weclawski said. "I think a change in Siberia's image will not only come through this cathedral's consecration, which is undoubtedly a historic event, but through the more general presence of the Catholic Church. As the Pope has said, we must learn to think in the long term."The new cathedral will be the seat of eastern Siberia's 47-year-old Polish-born apostolic administrator, Bishop Jerzy Mazur. It was dedicated on September 8 by the secretary-general of the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Jan Schotte, at a four-hour service attended by 70 priests, as well as representatives of non-Catholic denominations and survivors of the Siberian labor camps.The heart-shaped building, whose foundations were blessed in July 1999, was designed by Polish architect Andrzej Chwalibog and is expected to be maintained mainly by the region's ethnic Polish Catholics.Asked how the 500-seat cathedral had been built so quickly, Bishop Mazur told Poland's Catholic Information Agency that "extensive help" had been received from Roman Catholic dioceses in Germany, Italy and the United States, as well as from the Vatican and his own Verbist order of priests.Bishop Mazur added that the complex, which will include a home for handicapped children, was a "sign of hope for all Catholics who maintained the faith in times of pressure" and a mark of solidarity by fellow Catholics worldwide with "the church's rebirth in Siberia".Inaugurated in May 1999, the eastern Siberia apostolic administration is the world's biggest Roman Catholic entity, covering 6.25 million square miles, and including deaneries at Krasnoyarsk, Yakutsk, Magadan, and Vladivostok.According to church sources, the region has 37 Catholic priests, most of them foreigners, in 34 registered parishes. A million of eastern Siberia's 16 million inhabitants are believed to have Catholic family roots, although only 50,000 of them are baptized. The Russian Orthodox Church is the principal religious organization in the region, which also has communities of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Shamanists, some of whom attended the cathedral's dedication.Weclawik told ENI that local newspapers had created a "very unfavorable atmosphere" before Bishop Mazur's appointment in 1999. They accused Roman Catholics of attempting to reclaim a church confiscated under Soviet rule and now used as Irkutsk's sole cultural center.He added that the city authorities had given a prime site for the new Catholic cathedral in Irkutsk's Studgorodok university district in an attempt to calm tensions. "This problem became a kind of ulcer for the city government, which was pleased to find a compromise," the Catholic priest said.Weclawik said Bishop Mazur had remained "open to every gesture of goodwill" from the region's Russian Orthodox leader, Archbishop Vadim of Irkutsk-Angara, adding that Orthodox Christians regularly attended Catholic services. However, he stressed that his church had been established for the benefit of local Roman Catholics and "people who are searching"."There are Orthodox who throw Catholics out of their churches when they want to pray, but also very friendly Orthodox priests," the Catholic chancellor said. "The image of our church as a bunch of old grannies in colored headscarves is false - young people and children are coming to it, making it a church of hope. But the church's presence can't be measured by pastoral successes, in numbers of baptisms and parish members. It requires hard, responsible work - and very great patience."In a separate ceremony on September 10, a chapel of Reconciliation and Peace near the cathedral was dedicated by Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek of Belarus. The chapel contains 14 marble stones inscribed with the names of the Soviet Union's most notorious camps and prisons.The 86-year-old cardinal, who spent 10 years in Siberian camps and was even sentenced to death by the Soviets but later reprieved, said he could still picture many fellow inmates who had died in prison. The cardinal asked God's forgiveness for their "executioners."The new Catholic cathedral is the third major Catholic building to open in post-communist Russia, after Novosirbirk in August 1997, and Moscow in December 1999.Copyright © 2000 ENI
Click here to read more about Irkutsk, and see pictures of its Orthodox cathedrals.Read a Catholic News story from July 21, 1999 when Weclawik blessed the foundation of the Siberian cathedral.Previous Christianity Today articles on religion in Russia include:'Thorny' Issue Proves to be an Obstacle for Catholic-Orthodox Commission | Fate of Eastern Catholic Churches in post-communist Europe and Russia still unresolved. (July 26, 2000) Will Putin Protect Religious Liberty? | Freedoms may be in danger in the new Russia. (July 26, 2000) A Precarious Step Forward | Loosened rules in Russia may mean better times for religious freedom. (Feb. 3, 2000) Moscow Meeting Eases Russia's Interchurch Tensions | First major interchurch meeting since 1997 religion law called 'highly important.' (Dec. 6, 1999) Russia's Minority Churches Welcome Liberal Ruling on Religion Law | 1997 ruling against 'sects' upheld, but religious groups claim victory. (Dec. 3, 1999) A Fuller for Russia | A new home is dedicated for the nation's only graduate-level Protestant seminary. (Aug. 10, 1998) Why I'm Not Orthodox | An evangelical explores the ancient and alien world of the Eastern church. (Jan. 6, 1997)
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