Moscow, April 4 (Reuters): Russia's Orthodox Church, which barred Pope John Paul from Russian soil, said today it would resist any attempt by Roman Catholics to win new followers in its backyard, regardless of who becomes the next Pontiff.
'Any active attempts to preach the Roman Catholic faith among those baptised in the Orthodox church are totally unacceptable,' said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church.
John Paul II visited Orthodox countries which had been part of the Soviet Union, such as Georgia and Ukraine, but never won an invitation to visit Russia from Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II, who worried that Rome may be trying to poach Orthodox followers.
'We hope a spirit of competition will be replaced by a spirit of dialogue,' Chaplin said. 'We hope the new pontiff will understand our tradition.' Some three quarters of the Russian population of 145 million are believed to be baptised members of the Orthodox church compared with some 600,000 Catholics.
'I know the official position of the Vatican is to say that they should not proselytise and seek to convert Orthodox believers. But we see many examples of missionary work among children baptised in the Orthodox Church,' he said.
Rivalry between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches has its roots deep in history, stemming from the Great Schism of 1054 between the eastern and western branches of Christianity.
Although Pope John Paul's death was widely covered in the Russian media few ordinary Russians appear to be strongly aware of the part he played in bringing about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, seen in the West as a big part of his legacy.
'Russians have very little interest in the Pope,' said Boris Makarenko, a prominent political analyst.
'Very few people know or care that the Pope contributed to the struggle (against communism),' said Masha Lipman, a commentator on current affairs at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow. But Chaplin hailed Pope John Paul's part in helping to 'put an end to totalitarian atheism in Poland, Russia and other countries.'
The Orthodox hierarchy is particularly sensitive to what it sees as moves by the Catholic Church to win new followers in areas of the former Soviet Union which the Orthodox Church considers as its home turf.