Russian Catholics stage 'quiet commemorations' for deceased dissident Navalny

February 20, 2024 at 2:12 p.m.
Women hold candles as they attend a vigil in memory of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill) in Rome Feb. 19, 2024. (OSV News photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters)
Women hold candles as they attend a vigil in memory of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill) in Rome Feb. 19, 2024. (OSV News photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters) (Yara Nardi)

By Jonathan Luxmoore

OSV News – A senior Russian Catholic has urged others abroad to commemorate the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, as armed police dispersed citizens mourning his death at age 47 in a remote prison camp.

"When I heard he was dead, I recalled the words of St. Luke's Gospel, 'Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace' – he did everything he could for his country, and I thank God such people still exist," said the Moscow-based lay Catholic.

"The Catholic church in Russia doesn't speak out on sensitive issues – though we've been here for centuries, we still feel like we're in a ghetto, keeping quiet so no one will notice us. But I really hope memorial services will be held in other countries – that even the pope might join prayers in his memory."

The Catholic, who asked not to be named, spoke as Navalny's family requested handover of his body, amid international revulsion at the veteran dissident's suspicious death.

In an OSV News interview, she said fellow Catholics in Russia had long feared Navalny's end was being "brought closer" by his harsh detention conditions, which included 27 punitive spells in solitary confinement over three years.

She added that some church members had defied police pressure and requested prayers in his memory, while grieving his death as "a pain and tragedy, and a loss of hope."

"Although not all Catholics agreed with everything he said and did during his short life, no one would deny his courage," said the Catholic, a university lecturer who also works with Caritas.

"Sadly, however, I can't believe Navalny's death will mark a turning point by provoking mass protests and changing things. Many others have died under the current regime, and their names are already barely remembered by young Russians, while hundreds of political detainees still suffer in prisons and labor camps."

Navalny's death at the strict-regime IK-3 arctic Syberian penal colony in Russia's Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, where he was serving a 19-year sentence, was reported Feb. 16 by the Tass Russian news agency, which said the Federal Penitentiary Service had attributed it to "sudden death syndrome."

Speaking Feb. 20, the Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, dismissed media claims the dissident was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent, and criticized "arrogant" and "unacceptable" condemnations by Western leaders.

As of Feb. 20, at least 400 Russians were reported to have been arrested while commemorating Navalny across the country, as police removed flowers and candles in his memory.

Speaking Feb. 16 in Rome, the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said news of Navalny's death has caused "sadness" and surprised the Holy See.

A source at the Russian bishops' conference said he was unable to comment publicly on the "tragedy," while another prominent lay Catholic told OSV News church members feared for their safety if they spoke out.

Navalny ran for president in 2018, despite a court ruling him ineligible, and was jailed in January 2021 for violating parole after receiving life-saving treatment in Germany for Novichok poisoning in Siberia.

The dissident, whose three-and-a-half-year sentence was later extended, described himself as a Christian convert from "militant atheism" at his 2021 trial, adding that the Bible offered him guidance and gave him "fewer dilemmas in life."

In the court speech, reported by the now-disbanded Moscow Helsinki Group, he said he also had "no regrets" about returning to Russia to face certain arrest.

Navalny's death coincides with apparent Russian battlefield advances in Ukraine, as well as preparations for March 15-17 elections, in which President Putin, in power since 2000, is assured of a fifth term after the forced elimination or marginalization of possible challengers.

Leaders of Russia’s Catholic Church, whose four dioceses represent just 0.5% of Russia's 146 million inhabitants, according to Vatican data, have voiced fears that minority religious communities could be targeted during the campaign.

In a Feb. 13 letter to Moscow's mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, Italian-born Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God at Moscow condemned "unfair and offensive" protests Jan. 14 and Feb. 4 outside the capital's Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, during which nationalists branded Catholic clergy "enemies of Russia."

"These statements and actions were clearly aimed at inciting religious hatred and disrupting Sunday services – it is of particular concern that law enforcement officers remained inactive," said Archbishop Pezzi, who had urged a "merciful approach" to Alexei Navalny, without "torture and mockery" when his Anti-Corruption Foundation was forced to close offices in May 2021.

"I hope the Moscow government will intervene to protect Catholics from encroachment on their right to practice their faith without threat to safety and dignity."

In a Feb. 19 statement, Amnesty International urged the Russian government to end its "callous" campaign against citizens wishing to commemorate Navalny, and demanded "a prompt, independent and impartial investigation" into the circumstances of death, "which should be carried out with full transparency and the involvement of his family."

It added that a bishop from Russia's independent Orthodox Apostolic Church, Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko, had suffered a heart attack after being arrested while attempting a requiem in St. Petersburg for the dissident, as part of a nationwide "campaign to silence dissent and instill fear."

The priest, who is now hospitalized, was apprehended near his residence as he headed to a memorial site for Soviet political repression victims.

The detained priest was on his way to the Solovetsky Stone in St. Petersburg when he was apprehended and taken into custody on Feb. 17, The Moscow Times reported.

Reportedly many Catholics had participated in Stations of the Cross ceremonies across Russia for Navalny, as well as posting messages and prayers for the dissident on social media.

In her OSV News interview, the Moscow-based lay Catholic said clergy from Russia's predominant Orthodox church, which is tightly controlled by the Kremlin, had also held "private liturgies" for Navalny, despite "every possible preventive effort" by their bishops.

"It would be difficult to call Navalny a Christian martyr – for me, he's a martyr for the ideals of freedom he considered so important," added the lay Catholic, who said she had been urged by family members not to give her name, despite not wishing to "hide behind anonymity."

"Alexei Navalny urged us not to be afraid, as did St. John Paul and Christ himself, so this is the moment to step beyond our fear. I would be so pleased if the Catholic Church recalled the value of human dignity at this time, and joined in deploring the inhumane conditions in Russian prisons."



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OSV News – A senior Russian Catholic has urged others abroad to commemorate the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, as armed police dispersed citizens mourning his death at age 47 in a remote prison camp.

"When I heard he was dead, I recalled the words of St. Luke's Gospel, 'Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace' – he did everything he could for his country, and I thank God such people still exist," said the Moscow-based lay Catholic.

"The Catholic church in Russia doesn't speak out on sensitive issues – though we've been here for centuries, we still feel like we're in a ghetto, keeping quiet so no one will notice us. But I really hope memorial services will be held in other countries – that even the pope might join prayers in his memory."

The Catholic, who asked not to be named, spoke as Navalny's family requested handover of his body, amid international revulsion at the veteran dissident's suspicious death.

In an OSV News interview, she said fellow Catholics in Russia had long feared Navalny's end was being "brought closer" by his harsh detention conditions, which included 27 punitive spells in solitary confinement over three years.

She added that some church members had defied police pressure and requested prayers in his memory, while grieving his death as "a pain and tragedy, and a loss of hope."

"Although not all Catholics agreed with everything he said and did during his short life, no one would deny his courage," said the Catholic, a university lecturer who also works with Caritas.

"Sadly, however, I can't believe Navalny's death will mark a turning point by provoking mass protests and changing things. Many others have died under the current regime, and their names are already barely remembered by young Russians, while hundreds of political detainees still suffer in prisons and labor camps."

Navalny's death at the strict-regime IK-3 arctic Syberian penal colony in Russia's Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, where he was serving a 19-year sentence, was reported Feb. 16 by the Tass Russian news agency, which said the Federal Penitentiary Service had attributed it to "sudden death syndrome."

Speaking Feb. 20, the Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, dismissed media claims the dissident was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent, and criticized "arrogant" and "unacceptable" condemnations by Western leaders.

As of Feb. 20, at least 400 Russians were reported to have been arrested while commemorating Navalny across the country, as police removed flowers and candles in his memory.

Speaking Feb. 16 in Rome, the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said news of Navalny's death has caused "sadness" and surprised the Holy See.

A source at the Russian bishops' conference said he was unable to comment publicly on the "tragedy," while another prominent lay Catholic told OSV News church members feared for their safety if they spoke out.

Navalny ran for president in 2018, despite a court ruling him ineligible, and was jailed in January 2021 for violating parole after receiving life-saving treatment in Germany for Novichok poisoning in Siberia.

The dissident, whose three-and-a-half-year sentence was later extended, described himself as a Christian convert from "militant atheism" at his 2021 trial, adding that the Bible offered him guidance and gave him "fewer dilemmas in life."

In the court speech, reported by the now-disbanded Moscow Helsinki Group, he said he also had "no regrets" about returning to Russia to face certain arrest.

Navalny's death coincides with apparent Russian battlefield advances in Ukraine, as well as preparations for March 15-17 elections, in which President Putin, in power since 2000, is assured of a fifth term after the forced elimination or marginalization of possible challengers.

Leaders of Russia’s Catholic Church, whose four dioceses represent just 0.5% of Russia's 146 million inhabitants, according to Vatican data, have voiced fears that minority religious communities could be targeted during the campaign.

In a Feb. 13 letter to Moscow's mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, Italian-born Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God at Moscow condemned "unfair and offensive" protests Jan. 14 and Feb. 4 outside the capital's Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, during which nationalists branded Catholic clergy "enemies of Russia."

"These statements and actions were clearly aimed at inciting religious hatred and disrupting Sunday services – it is of particular concern that law enforcement officers remained inactive," said Archbishop Pezzi, who had urged a "merciful approach" to Alexei Navalny, without "torture and mockery" when his Anti-Corruption Foundation was forced to close offices in May 2021.

"I hope the Moscow government will intervene to protect Catholics from encroachment on their right to practice their faith without threat to safety and dignity."

In a Feb. 19 statement, Amnesty International urged the Russian government to end its "callous" campaign against citizens wishing to commemorate Navalny, and demanded "a prompt, independent and impartial investigation" into the circumstances of death, "which should be carried out with full transparency and the involvement of his family."

It added that a bishop from Russia's independent Orthodox Apostolic Church, Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko, had suffered a heart attack after being arrested while attempting a requiem in St. Petersburg for the dissident, as part of a nationwide "campaign to silence dissent and instill fear."

The priest, who is now hospitalized, was apprehended near his residence as he headed to a memorial site for Soviet political repression victims.

The detained priest was on his way to the Solovetsky Stone in St. Petersburg when he was apprehended and taken into custody on Feb. 17, The Moscow Times reported.

Reportedly many Catholics had participated in Stations of the Cross ceremonies across Russia for Navalny, as well as posting messages and prayers for the dissident on social media.

In her OSV News interview, the Moscow-based lay Catholic said clergy from Russia's predominant Orthodox church, which is tightly controlled by the Kremlin, had also held "private liturgies" for Navalny, despite "every possible preventive effort" by their bishops.

"It would be difficult to call Navalny a Christian martyr – for me, he's a martyr for the ideals of freedom he considered so important," added the lay Catholic, who said she had been urged by family members not to give her name, despite not wishing to "hide behind anonymity."

"Alexei Navalny urged us not to be afraid, as did St. John Paul and Christ himself, so this is the moment to step beyond our fear. I would be so pleased if the Catholic Church recalled the value of human dignity at this time, and joined in deploring the inhumane conditions in Russian prisons."


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