""Keep Out of Our Affairs,"" Alexiy Tells Catholics

The head of Russia's Orthodox Church on Thursday called on Pope John Paul to prevent Roman Catholics from actively seeking converts in the former Soviet Union and to stop encroaching on Orthodox churches.

"We have serious concerns about the fact that in post-Soviet times the Catholic Church has attempted to spread its faith in the territories of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and Kazakhstan," Patriarch Alexiy II told the Sevodnya daily newspaper.

"At the same time in western Ukraine they have seized churches and deprived Orthodox believers of the chance to fulfil their religious needs," he said.

He had repeatedly called on the Vatican to intervene, but to no avail, he said.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, rival Christian faiths in Ukraine have quarrelled over Church property in sometimes violent confrontations.

Pope John Paul has long dreamed of visiting Russia but unresolved disputes and sometimes bitter tensions between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches have prevented such a trip.

Alexiy has so far declined to meet the 80-year-old pontiff, effectively stopping him from travelling to Russia.

"In course of discussions about a visit we decided to sign a joint declaration...and I would like an announcement of the rejection of proselytism and encroaching on our churches to be included in it," the patriarch said.

"(But) the Pope does not agree that these two articles should come into the declaration. I hope that sooner or later we will overcome these discords," he added.

The Pope has made patching up ties with other Christian churches a priority. He made his first trip to the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1999, which groups former Soviet republics, visiting Georgia.

Earlier this month, he reiterated his intention to visit Ukraine this year. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is subordinated to Russia's Orthodox Church, opposes Catholic expansion and has asked the Pope to delay his trip.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy have been split since the Great Schism divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches in 1054.