Cardinal Pietro Parolin has been in Moscow this week, and Russia’s ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, is absolutely delighted. The two nations, he told La Stampa, share “a high level of mutual trust and a great harmony on many issues”. The Holy Father, he explained, is “very esteemed and loved by the citizens of my country”.

Parolin himself was notably more reserved. He told Corriere della Sera: “After the period of ideological opposition, which obviously can’t entirely fade from today to tomorrow, and in the new scenarios that have opened up since the end of the Cold War, it’s important to take advantage of every occasion to encourage respect, dialogue and mutual collaboration in a view to promoting peace.”

The Vatican is finding that to be true more and more often as its attentions turn East. Yet reconciliation with one’s enemies always runs the risk of alienating one’s friends. Former Soviet states like Russia and the Ukraine, as well as nominally Marxist ones like China and Vietnam, are home to millions of Catholics. Most live as second-class citizens, if not outlaws. The governments are generally willing to negotiate for Catholics’ (and the Church’s) rights. But any dialogue is built on decades of repression, intrigue and a lingering mistrust of “Western agents” – usually, by definition, anyone who falls under the authority of Rome.

So while Cardinal Parolin speaks of “new scenarios”, the current problems go a long way back. During the Stalin years, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was banned and its properties turned over to the Russian Orthodox Church. The rights of Byzantine Catholics have been a sticking point in Russo-Vatican relations. The problems were only exacerbated by the invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Neither side is relenting. At a synod in Rome three years ago, Metropolitan Hilarion – seated directly behind the Pope – launched a blistering attack on Ukrainian Catholics.

He accused them of trying to steal Orthodox parishes and of orchestrating the “Maidan Revolution” that ousted pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, wrote an open letter to world leaders earlier this year pleading with them to “stop the aggressor” and end the “humanitarian emergency” – Europe’s worst, he claimed, since World War II.

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