10/29/2008, 00.00
RUSSIA – VATICAN
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Two Jesuit priests assassinated in Moscow

by Maria Anikina
Details about the murder have yet been made public. Police believe the two might have been killed by someone they knew, a Hispanic man who was drunk. The Vatican Press Office disagrees. The Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate and the Russian Mufti Council express their condolences.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – Two Catholic priests were found murdered in Moscow last night at 9.20 pm (local time) with severe injuries to their bodies. For Moscow police the two clergymen were killed by a drunkard just before they were found. The director of the Vatican Press Service said instead that the two men were murdered separately at an interval of several days. The victims are Fr Otto Messmer, 47, a Russian national who headed the Russian Independent Region of the Society of Jesus, and Fr Victor Betancourt, 42, from Ecuador.

The two Jesuits lived in the flat which was also the headquarters of their community at 19 Petrovka and worked for the pastoral office of the Russian capital’s Catholic community, the first since 2002, the second since 2001, in the Parish of St-Louis.

Fr Igor Kovalevsky, general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, said that when the priests “did not answer telephone calls” so “their brothers [. . .] went to the apartment, where they found them already dead.”

Nothing is known at present as to why the two were killed, but police has one lead. According to it, the two clergymen were involved in a fight with a Hispanic man of 40. Eyewitnesses said that they saw a man fitting such a description near the area with a blood-soaked shirt.

In a statement the director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi, said that the priests had apparently been killed with “blunt objects”. But in his view, “the attack on Father Betancourt is believed to have happened at the end of last week as he did not turn up for mass as usual on Sunday. Father Messmer had [instead] returned to Moscow from Germany on Monday evening and was probably killed shortly afterwards.”

In a press release the Secretariat of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Russia said that the “Catholic Church in Russia suffered a heavy loss.” Two “ardent pastors loved by believers died.”

In another statement the Information Service of the Archdiocese of Our Lady in Moscow expressed hope that “Russian law enforcement agencies will be able to find the criminals and that society and the courts will give an impartial legal and moral judgement".

Archbishop Paolo Pezzi will lead a memorial service for the murdered priests in the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady in Moscow.

Fr Igor Vyzhanov, secretary of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, personally knew Fr Otto Messmer.

He remembers “the Catholic priest as a very calm and deep person” and extended his condolences to the Catholic Church and Moscow’s Jesuit community on behalf of the Patriarchate.

Damir Gizatullin, first deputy chairman of the Council of Mufti of the Russian Federation, also offered his condolence to the Catholic Church.

“These two murders are a great loss for all believers, he said.

Mr. Victor Khroul, a former editor of the Russian Catholic Weekly The Light of Gospel who lectures in journalism at Moscow State University, was also personally acquainted with Fr Otto Messmer.

He said that Father Otto came from a very religious family. His brothers became priests and sisters, nuns. One of his brothers, Nikolai, became a bishop and is now the apostolic administrator for Catholics in Kyrgyzstan. Another brother, Victor, now works in Kazakhstan.

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