Moscow, Oct. 20: It all began innocently enough when a Polish Franciscan monk was looking to let his shabby northern Moscow flat to a suitable tenant.
He was pleased when he found a Russian woman who said she would use the premises to run a business for “charitable purposes”. They signed a three-year contract and he handed over the keys.
Six months later, the mundane deal has exploded into an international row replete with insinuations of Roman Catholic sleaze and counter-accusations that the Kremlin is waging a Soviet-style dirty tricks campaign against the Vatican.
The first sign of trouble came earlier this month when the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda alleged that the flat was being used as a brothel.
Under the headline “Moscow Monastery is a bordello”, it published a computer-generated picture showing a handsome monk standing in front of a girl dressed only in a bra and nun’s veil, and slumped seductively across an armchair.
The rest of the Russian media pounced on the story, each new version suggesting a little more brazenly that the Franciscans were somehow partners in the brothel.
The Order of Friars Minor Conventual angrily denied any link. An official said Father Grigory Tserokh, who had negotiated the deal, was an innocent victim in the whole affair. The row is threatening to further damage relations between the Vatican and the Kremlin, already at loggerheads over the treatment of Russia’s Catholics.
This week the Vatican angrily accused the Kremlin of planting stories in the media to besmirch Catholicism.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Pope’s official spokesman, said Moscow had begun “a despicable operation designed to discredit the brothers and through them the Catholic Church”.
Moscow was already in bitter dispute with Rome, which it accuses of proselytising. The Russian Orthodox Church, in cahoots with Kremlin hardliners, has fiercely opposed a visit by the Pope, which the aging Pontiff has said he is especially keen to make.
The Vatican has accused Russia of discriminating against its vulnerable flock, who account for less than 600,000 in a country of 145 million. Only last month, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewecz, head of the Catholic Church in Russia, issued a statement saying the rights of Catholics were being consistently violated.
The Franciscans point to the latest mud-slinging as evidence to bolster their case, saying there is no suggestion of any impropriety on the part of Father Grigory.
It was apparently only when neighbours started complaining about late-night visitors that the Franciscan suspected that his property was being used for less than honourable purposes.
When Father Grigory insisted that his new tenant, Maria Tikhonova, should move out, she refused. He later appeared with several policemen but, after an inspection, they left saying no law was being broken.
Then Tikhonova changed the locks. Seen from the street, the flat at the centre of the row is inconspicuous. Only a few red love hearts and blue flowers painted around the shabby metal porch and door give an inkling of what goes on inside.
After ringing the entry phone, a sleepy, sexy voice answered before putting on Tikhonova. “Prostitutes' Here'” she said.
“This is a simple family home.”
In a phone call, Tikhonova’s lawyer, Natasha Ripina, said the flowers had been painted to celebrate one of the children’s birthdays. Larisa, who runs a hairdressers’ salon next door, shrugged when asked what she thought of the changes.
“Before there were monks,” she said. “Now there are beautiful girls.
“For us it really makes no difference. The monks didn't come here to have their hair cut and nor do the call girls.”