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#9 - JRL 7015
Pope decries expulsion of Catholics from Russia
January 13, 2003

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope John Paul Monday demanded that Russian authorities stop expelling Catholic priests and bishops from the country.

Speaking to diplomats at the Vatican, the pope said he had been greatly pained by "the plight of Catholic communities in the Russian Federation, which for months now have seen some of their pastors prevented from returning to them..."

One bishop and several priests have been prevented from returning to their parishes or dioceses in Russia and been declared persona non grata while traveling outside the country.

"The Holy See expects from government authorities concrete decisions which will put an end to this crisis," he said.

Last April Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Pole who had been based in eastern Siberia since 1998, was prevented from returning to Moscow from Poland.

The move followed the expulsion of several priests.

Russia's Orthodox Church wants to block Vatican plans to strengthen the Catholic presence in Russia. The Vatican has denounced the expulsions as part of an organized campaign against Russia's Catholic Church.

The two churches have been at loggerheads since last year when the Vatican moved to strengthen its structures in Russia by creating four fully-fledged Catholic dioceses.

The leadership of the powerful Orthodox Church says the Catholic Church is out to poach converts from its flock. The Church's leader said last week it was up to the Vatican to improve relations.

"The prospect of better relations depends entirely on the will of the Vatican," Patriarch Alexiy II told the Russian newspaper Kommersant.

The Vatican says there are 1.3 million practicing Catholics among Russia's 143 million people but some analysts put the figure much lower.

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