Moscow, Feb. 12--(AP) The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia strongly denied Tuesday that the Vatican's decision to set up four dioceses in the country was aimed at expanding its influence in this predominantly Orthodox Christian nation.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, whom the Vatican put in charge of the four new Russian dioceses, said the move was merely a "normalization of the Catholic Church structure in Russia." "Everybody wants certainty. The setting up of the four dioceses gives us confidence and strengthens the legal status" of the Catholic Church in Russia, he told a news conference.

The Orthodox Church didn't see it that way. The Holy Synod, its ruling body, called the Vatican's move on Monday "a challenge to Orthodoxy." It accused the Vatican of forming "an unprecedented structure, a Russian Catholic Church" with the intention of converting more Russians. "Nothing of this kind has ever happened in Russia's history," it said.

While the Holy Synod stopped short of suspending contacts with the Vatican, as Orthodox officials had threatened, it said Catholic proselytizing was a "major obstacle" to better relations. "I absolutely disagree with the accusation of proselytizing," Kondrusiewicz said.

Russia's foreign ministry also criticized the Vatican, saying it acted against the advice of the Russian government. When notified on Feb. 4 of the Vatican's intentions, the government warned that setting up Catholic dioceses might lead to a "serious exacerbation" of inter-church relations, the ministry said, adding it "regrets" that advice was ignored.

Pope John Paul II has made the improvement of relations with Orthodox Christians a priority of his papacy. But Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II criticized the pope's visit last year to the largely Orthodox ex-Soviet republic of Ukraine. He said last month he would refuse to meet the pope if he visited Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that he would be eager to invite John Paul to Russia if the two churches could patch up their differences

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