Murder of more clerics in Moscow puzzles church and authorities

By Ecumenical News International
November 4, 2008

The murder of two Jesuit priests from Moscow's Roman Catholic community in their apartment in central Moscow, just a block from the Russian capital's police headquarters, is adding to the perplexity of church officials about recent killings of clerics - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.

In a statement on 29 October, the Moscow division of the federal prosecutor's office said that the Rev. Otto Messmer, a Russian citizen aged 47, and the Rev Victor Betancourt, aged 42, from Ecuador, were found the day before dead with head injuries. Investigators estimate the two priests had been dead for more than 24 hours.

The Interfax-religion news agency reported that during a memorial Mass at Moscow's Catholic cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on 29 October, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi said, "Today we especially entreat you to grant eternal peace to these your servants who so suddenly departed to you, and to give us strength to live in love for you."

The apartment in which the priests were found and Moscow's police headquarters are on Petrovka, one of Russian capital's oldest and most central streets.

According to the investigators' statement, the apartment was unlocked and nothing had been stolen. "The investigation is examining all possible versions of the incident, including a personal conflict, since traces of a party were found in the apartment," they noted.

A statement posted on the Web site of the Jesuit headquarters,, described Messmer as being of German ethnic origin, born in Kazakhstan, when it was in the Soviet Union. His brother, Nikolaus Messmer, is bishop in Bishkek, capital of the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, another country that belonged to the Soviet Union.

Betancourt was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador and entered the Society of Jesus in 1984 in Quito. Both Messmer and Betancourt worked at the St. Thomas Philosophical, Theological and Historical Institute in Moscow.

The Jesuit Web site said that Betancourt was killed on 25 October and that Messmer was killed two days later in the same apartment after returning from a trip abroad. According to the statement, another Jesuit, concerned that he couldn't reach them, went to the apartment, found the bodies and contacted the police.

The Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican have had tense relations since the fall of the Soviet Union over accusations by the Moscow Patriarchate that Catholics are proselytising among Orthodox Russians, but there have been signs of closer ties recently.

The Russian Orthodox Church has been shaken by the murder of several Orthodox priests in recent years. Russian Patriarch Alexei II expressed his condolences upon hearing reports of the murder of the Catholic priests. "It is our common duty to pray for the repose of these people," Alexei said at the Danilov monastery on 29 October after a previously scheduled meeting with Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of France, Interfax-religion reported.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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