Feb. 13, MOSCOW (AP) - In a growing rift with the Vatican, the Russian Orthodox Church has told a top papal envoy who was to visit this month that he is no longer welcome, pointing at the pope's ``unfriendly'' decision to set up Roman Catholic dioceses in Russia.
The Orthodox Church's chief of foreign relations, Metropolitan Kirill, told Cardinal Walter Kasper in a letter that his visit to Russia would be ``impossible'' at the current time, Orthodox Church spokesman Igor Vyzhanov said Wednesday.
Kirill spoke two days after the Vatican announced its decision to elevate the status of its four ``apostolic administrations'' in Russia into full-fledged dioceses, a change the Russian church called part of an effort by the Roman Catholic Church to expand its influence and seek converts. The Vatican said it was merely meant to improve pastoral services for Catholics in Russia.
Pope John Paul II has made the improvement of relations with Orthodox Christians after a millennium of division a goal of his papacy, and wants to visit Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church says that cannot happen until relations improve - something it says can only occur if the Roman Catholic Church stops its alleged proselytizing in Russia.
Kirill told The Associated Press Television News a meeting between Alexy and John Paul would be ``unlikely'' until the churches, divided since the Great Schism of 1054, solve their fundamental differences.
In a statement released Tuesday, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II said the decision to create dioceses aggravated the church conflict. ``The Vatican's action has jeopardized the ability of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East to cooperate as two great civilizations for the benefit of Europe and the entire world,'' he said.
A Russian newspaper said the Vatican decision indicated that it has lost hope of settling the dispute through dialogue and has decided to go its own way without worrying so much about opposition from the Russian church. ``The Vatican's move has signaled an end to its policy of appeasement toward the Russian Orthodox Church,'' the liberal daily Novye Izvestia said in an editorial.
The Roman Catholic Church says there are about 600,000 Catholics in Russia today, while there were an estimated 800,000 on the territory of modern-day Russia before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Catholics have pushed for the return of church property that was confiscated during the Soviet era.
The Russian Orthodox Church does not release figures on its followers, but Britain's Keston Institute estimates that about two-thirds of Russia's 144 million people consider themselves Orthodox Christians.