Law enforcement officers detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow Jan. 31. (CNS photo/Maxim Shemetov, Reuters)
Law enforcement officers detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow Jan. 31. (CNS photo/Maxim Shemetov, Reuters)
OXFORD, England — The secretary-general of the Russian bishops' conference defended his church's right to speak out during police repression, as the country's Catholic archbishop demanded "substantial, concrete answers" to societal problems that are the subject of current massive protests.

"Young people have gone out in freezing temperatures and tried to express their convictions, and many have suffered in consequence — moral issues are involved here and our church shouldn't stay silent," said Jesuit Father Stephan Lipke, conference secretary-general.

"Some warn this might endanger the life of our parishes. But what's the good of parishes if they're just centers of confusion and do nothing to shape people's consciences?" he asked Catholic News Service Feb. 10.

In ongoing protests against the treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, more than 11,000 people have been arrested, mostly in Moscow.

Father Lipke told CNS Masses have been disrupted by police road closures in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while several Catholics were among those beaten and deprived of food and water in police detention.

"Some Catholics think it's OK Navalny is in prison since they don't agree with his opinions. But while I myself don't agree with his opinions, this isn't a reason to send him to jail," said the German-born priest, who directs Moscow's St. Thomas Institute and ministered previously at Tomsk in Siberia.

The United States and other Western governments criticized the Feb. 2 jailing of Navalny, who was arrested Jan. 17 on his return from Germany, where he spent five months in the hospital after a near-fatal nerve agent attack. The European Union warned of further sanctions against Russia, after diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden were expelled.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, who heads Russia's Moscow-based Mother of God Archdiocese, blamed the protests on economic hardships and the "evil of corruption." He spoke to Italy's SIR news agency Feb. 5, and the interview was reprinted in Russian on the archdiocesan website Feb. 9.

The archbishop said he believed the "Robin Hood role" assigned to Navalny by the West was "somewhat exaggerated," but added that Russia's Catholic Church should "rediscover the common good" in responding to current problems.

"This protest does not concern only one part, but all strata of Russian society -- whereas there were signs of hope and renewal in the 1990s, discomfort is arising today," the Italian-born archbishop told SIR.

"It seems insufficient to limit ourselves only to legal regulation of this protest, while asserting everything is fine and there are no problems. Today's society needs more substantial answers. Except for some excesses, people have taken to the streets in a peaceful, civilized manner, and their anxiety must be taken seriously."

Opposition leaders have called for candle and flashlight protests outside homes Feb. 14, while lay Christians from various churches also condemned current repression in an early February declaration and urged religious leaders to "testify to the efficacy of the faith" by speaking out.

Father Lipke said some Catholics had predicted Archbishop Pezzi could face expulsion from Russia after his SIR interview, adding that the bishops' conference would meet Feb. 18 and March 11 to discuss the situation.

"While many young people have been fined after their arrest, others still await their fate, not knowing what this may mean for their future -- if the police conclude they're somehow involved with the opposition, it can be dangerous for them," the priest told CNS.

"Catholics have different opinions here, with many relying solely on state TV for their views, so it's important to find the right way of speaking. But I see no reason to be afraid. The church shouldn't side with any party, but be with the people in their sufferings."