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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vatican Facing National Protests

Pro-Kremlin lawmakers and nationalist activists joined forces with the Russian Orthodox Church on Tuesday to protest what they see as an encroaching Western expansion led by the United States and the Vatican.

Announcing a nationwide day of protest for Sunday, the group said the Roman Catholic Church's decision in February to upgrade its structure in Russia to full-fledged dioceses was part of a series of jabs at Russian statehood.

"Now, we are seeing spiritual expansion," said Gennady Raikov, a deputy in the State Duma. "The goal of our protest is to show that the Russian state is able to defend not only its borders, but its spirituality and values."

A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Reverend Antony Ilyin, said the church supported Sunday's protests, which organizers said were planned in more than 20 regions and would include both rallies and prayers.

Tensions surrounding the Catholic Church have increased in recent weeks.

A Polish monk said Tuesday that Moscow police defaced his passport during a spot check of his documents the night before.

The incident occurred just days after a Polish bishop, Jerzy Mazur, was prevented from entering Russia and returning to his diocese in Siberia. Earlier this month, Father Stefano Caprio, who has lived in Russia for more than a decade, had his visa taken away at Sheremetyevo Airport.

Damian Stepien, a Franciscan friar from Poland, said he was stopped after he left Moscow's Catholic cathedral for his lodgings late on Monday by two police officers who took his passport, damaged it and then threw it in a garbage bin.

"When the policemen saw that I was here at the invitation of the Catholic Church, they asked whether I was Catholic. When I said 'yes,' they angrily screwed up my papers and threw them in the bin," Stepien told Poland's PAP news agency.

"One of them punched a hole in my photo with his pen, so I can't use the passport any more," he said.

Stepien said he reported the matter and received an assurance from a superior officer that the policemen involved would be punished.

A fellow Catholic cleric based in Moscow confirmed the account, adding that Stepien had been wearing casual clothes at the time.

"This is a sad act of vandalism, especially since it was performed by men in uniform. It confirms the generally tense atmosphere surrounding the Catholic Church in Russia," Father Bogdan Sewerenik said by telephone.

Mazur was declared persona non grata on Friday as he arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport. The bishop, who has worked in Irkutsk since 1998, was put on a plane back to Warsaw.

The Polish government, run by secular former communists, summoned Moscow's ambassador to the Foreign Ministry on Monday to demand an explanation, but stopped short of a public rebuke.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko accused the media of misreporting the dispute as a clash between Russia and Poland, and criticized talk that Polish Catholics were being persecuted.

"We must stress that the actions taken in connection with Jerzy Mazur have no relation whatsoever with his nationality," he said, adding that Mazur had been dealt with in strict accordance with Russian law.

"The basis for the relevant decision are the serious complaints about the activities of the Vatican's senior representative," Yakovenko said. He did not elaborate.

Ilyin said the Russian Orthodox Church had no role in the Mazur affair: "The Russian Orthodox Church is not the secret service, which can allow people into Russia or expel them from the country."

The church "does not use such methods in its disputes with other religions," Interfax quoted him as saying.

On Sunday, as Catholics in Irkutsk prayed for Mazur's return, at least 100 people demonstrated outside the cathedral against "Catholic expansion."

In a statement Tuesday, Raikov's People's Party and the Union of Orthodox Citizens accused the Catholic Church of attempting to create an insidious "fifth column" to destroy Russia from the inside.

The Vatican's decision to elevate its temporary apostolic administrations in Russia to permanent dioceses angered the Russian Orthodox Church, which has long complained that Catholic activity in Russia amounts to poaching souls from the country's traditional church.

Raikov said the Western encroachment went beyond the Catholic Church.

"There has been a whole chain of events, beginning with the fact that, under the anti-terrorism flag, the United States has established bases in Central Asia and now in Georgia," he said.

The United States is using airfields in former Soviet republics of Central Asia for its military campaign in Afghanistan and plans to train an anti-terrorist force for Georgia.

(AP, Reuters)