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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vatican Plan Irks Orthodox Church

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican plans to formalize its presence in Russia into full-fledged Catholic dioceses, a move that has irritated the Russian Orthodox Church and may delay an eventual visit by the pope to Moscow.

The plan, which Vatican sources said Saturday is expected to be disclosed officially soon, has already been rejected by the Russian Orthodox Church, whose consent would be crucial for any papal trip.

The plans call for the Vatican to transform its current four "apostolic administrations" into dioceses.

The Vatican uses apostolic administrations in countries where situations for the Catholic Church are difficult for historic reasons. They are considered a stop-gap measure.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Vatican had apostolic administrations in a number of countries in Eastern Europe, but they were later upgraded to dioceses, which are a more permanent and formal form of representation.

In Russia, the Vatican has four apostolic administrations -- Southern European Russia, Northern European Russia, Western Siberia and Eastern Siberia.

The Roman Catholic Church around the world has 2,846 dioceses, archdioceses, patriarchates and other territorial groups, as opposed to only 13 apostolic administrations.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which has had sometimes icy relations with the Vatican since the fall of communism in 1989, has already said no.

On its web site, the Orthodox Church said one of its archbishops had received the Vatican's ambassador to Russia, Archbishop Giorgio Zur, last Wednesday.

While the statement made no specific reference to dioceses, it said Zur told the Russians of steps "the Vatican plans to take to change fundamentally the canonical order of the Catholic Church in Russia."

It slammed Vatican plans as "violations of the canonical principles and norms of inter-church relations" and warned that if the Vatican went ahead, it would constitute "serious obstacles for the development of dialogue between the two churches."

For the past 12 years, the Russian Orthodox Church has accused Catholics of using their new-found freedom and legal status to poach believers.

The Vatican has denied this, but there have lingering problems concerning the restitution of Catholic property confiscated from the Catholics during Stalinism and given to the Russian Orthodox Church.

In places such as Ukraine, disputes between Catholic and Orthodox believers have spilled over into violence over repossession of churches and other buildings.

The pope, 81 and in frail health, has made no secret of his desire to visit Moscow to push for unity between the western and eastern branches of Christianity, which split in 1054.

President Vladimir Putin favors a papal visit and is said to have been putting pressure on Patriarch Alexy II to consent to such a visit.

But Alexy has refused to even meet the pope until an end to what he has called Catholic attempts to seek converts in Russia and other Orthodox states in the former Soviet Union.