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In Setback to Vatican, Russia Blocks Bishop's Reentry

April 21, 2002|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russian passport officers have refused reentry to a Roman Catholic bishop who was returning to his diocese, in effect revoking his right to live and work in Russia and escalating the country's conflict with the Vatican, Catholic officials said Saturday.

Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen who is one of four Catholic bishops in Russia, arrived at Moscow's main international airport Friday with a valid visa, saw it canceled on the spot and was forced to fly back to Warsaw.

Mazur "was expelled from Russia without any explanation," said Igor Kovalevsky, general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia. "Russia's Catholics may get the impression that a wide-scale anti-Catholic campaign is underway in Russia in which state structures are regrettably taking part."

In Rome on Saturday, the Vatican issued a stern protest to the Russian ambassador. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls termed the incident a "grave violation."

Mazur was the second Catholic cleric expelled by Russian officials in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Italian priest Stefano Caprio had his valid visa confiscated by Russian passport control and was asked to leave. He was told that he was on a "blacklist" compiled by Russian secret services.

"Every country in the world, including the United States, has a list of certain citizens from other countries who are banned from entering that country," deputy border service director Alexander Yeryomin told Echo of Moscow radio Saturday. He provided no further explanation for revoking the visas.

Russia's relations with the Catholic Church have been tense for many years, largely because the Orthodox Church jealously guards its prerogatives as the country's dominant faith. Since the Soviet Union's collapse, church leaders have repeatedly complained about "proselytizing" by "foreign" churches, particularly Catholics.

"I am sure the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is behind this both cynical and blunt campaign," said Anatoly Pchelintsev, director of the Institute of Religion and Law in Moscow. "It is no secret that at least half of Russian Orthodox hierarchs are either former or current agents of the KGB [and its successor the] FSB, which have a great influence in Russian power structures."

Relations between Catholics and the Russian Orthodox have worsened considerably since Pope John Paul II visited Ukraine and Kazakhstan last year and the Vatican established formal dioceses in Russia in February.

The Russian Orthodox Church considers Russia and the former Soviet republics to be its "canonical territory" and says no other church has the right to form dioceses, the seat of a bishop. (Mazur heads the Irkutsk diocese, which covers 4,000 square miles of eastern Siberia and is territorially the world's largest Catholic diocese.)

The Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church also believes that it has the right to approve or block visits by other religious figures, and it has complained that the pope did not receive such permission before visiting Ukraine.

John Paul has made no secret of his desire to make a Russian visit, which would be a kind of victory lap in a papacy marked by the collapse of communism and the rebirth of Catholicism in much of Eastern Europe, including his native Poland.

But although Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has said he is amenable to a visit by the pope, he says the Orthodox Church's approval is required. And the Russian patriarch, Alexi II, has blocked a visit for years, saying the Vatican must first make concessions to Orthodox wishes.

Pchelintsev said other churches around the world do not claim the same prerogatives as the Russian Orthodox Church.

"The concept of canonical territory . . . has never been accepted by any other confession," he said.

Of Russia's 144 million people, two-thirds describe themselves as Orthodox and about 600,000 as Catholic. In an interview with The Times in 2000, Mazur said that many of the latter are descendants of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans and other Catholics sent to Siberia as exiles. Preaching to them is not proselytizing but helping them reclaim their past, he said.

"Their grandfathers were Catholics. And they have the right to hear the word of God," Mazur said then.

But many Russians see Catholic intentions as a sinister attempt to undermine the Orthodox Church by taking advantage of its weaknesses as it reestablishes itself in the post-Communist world.

"These unilateral acts of the Vatican [are] an unfriendly step indicating that the Vatican ignores the rights and interest of the largest Orthodox Church in the world, which is living through a difficult period of its revival after cruel persecutions," a spokesman for the Moscow patriarchate told the Itar-Tass news agency last week. "All this only delays prospects for a meeting with the pope of Rome."

*

Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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