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Catholic church asks Russia to explain bishop's expulsion
MOSCOW -- The Roman Catholic Church will demand an explanation from the Russian government why a bishop was barred from entering Russia, the second case this month to stoke fears of persecution of Catholics, a church official said Monday.
"Many Catholic believers have the impression that a large-scale anti-Catholic campaign ... regrettably involving representatives of state structures ... has begun in Russia," the Rev. Igor Kowalewsky, a spokesman for the Catholic church in Russia, said at a news conference.
Bishop Jerzy Mazur, en route to his Siberian diocese from his native Poland, was barred from entering Russia when he arrived at a Moscow airport on Friday. He was told he was on the list of foreigners barred from entering Russia and was sent back to Warsaw.
Two weeks ago, Russian officers ripped the Rev. Stefano Caprio's visa out of his passport as he left, meaning he could not return to his parish in the western city of Vladimir unless he receives a new visa.
Patriarch Alexy II, the Russian Orthodox Church leader, denied the church was involved in Mazur's case.
"There is no link between that incident and the position of our church," he was quoted as saying by the news agency ITAR-Tass.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman refused to comment on Mazur's case, and other Russian officials have given no explanation for either incident.
The incidents came amid heightened tensions between Catholics and the Russian Orthodox Church, which accuses the Catholic church of trying to lure away its adherents.
Mazur headed one of the four dioceses that the Roman Catholic Church created in Russia in February by upgrading its lower-level apostolic administrations.
About two-thirds of Russia's 144 million people are Orthodox. There are about 600,000 Catholics, including 50,000 living in Mazur's diocese -- an area larger than the United States.
The Vatican insisted that setting up dioceses was just a "normalization" of its structure in Russia, but the Orthodox Church called them an encroachment.
Kowalewsky noted other conflicts, including a recent decision by local authorities to halt construction of a Catholic church in Pskov following complaints by an Orthodox bishop.
He also said that Orthodox believers on Sunday picketed the Catholic church in Irkutsk, center of Mazur's diocese. Russian law bans such rallies, and the Catholic church has asked prosecutors to investigate.
Russian human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov expressed concern about Mazur's case, saying that "there should be no pressure in anything related to religion," Interfax reported.