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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Catholics Bemused by Expulsions

Alarmed Roman Catholic Church officials are looking for answers after five priests were expelled from Russia in six months, and one said Friday that he was holding the Kremlin responsible.

"We do not understand what the authorities want from us," Catholic official Viktor Khrul said at a news conference Friday. "It appears that we are being punished for something, that we are misbehaving. But we are unable to decipher these hieroglyphics. Until these signs can be interpreted, it is hard to expect that Catholics will behave any differently."

The church, which is dependent on foreign priests since Catholic seminaries were unable to function in Russia for decades, had two priests expelled from the country last week. The first expulsions came shortly after the Vatican decided in February to raise the status of the church in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church fiercely criticized the move as part of a drive to poach Orthodox believers.

Catholic church officials, who deny the allegation, said last week that they were puzzled by the government's deafening silence and hints that President Vladimir Putin may have sided with the Orthodox Church. An inability to find a pattern among the expulsions is only increasing the church's frustration.

"The harsh reality is throwing us back to the time of the old regime, when Russian Catholics were left without priests and without spiritual guidance," the head of the Catholic Church in Russia, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, said in an appeal issued Thursday and addressed "to Russian and international human rights organizations and all people of good will."

"Do everything possible to stop infringement on religious freedom and individual rights," he said. "Today the rights of Catholics are being infringed upon, tomorrow anyone could become a victim."

Khrul, Kondrusiewicz's spokesman, said the church does not know who was behind the decision to expel the priests and what the clergymen were guilty of. But he dismissed suggestions that the expulsions were linked to the Federal Security Service and said he held the presidential administration responsible.

"Something like this could easily be curtailed by the presidential administration," he said. Putin sent a letter to Pope John Paul II this summer in reply to a query about priest expulsions. Catholic officials would not disclose the contents Friday but made it clear they were not pleased with what Putin had written.

Last Monday, priest Jaroslaw Wisnewski, a Pole based in Sakhalin, was turned back at the Khabarovsk airport on arrival from Japan. Rostov-on-Don priest Edward Mackiewicz, also a Pole, was turned back Tuesday at the Polish-Belarussian border. The first priests expelled this year were Stefano Caprio, an Italian, and Polish-born Bishop Jerzi Mazur, whose diocese includes eastern Siberia and Sakhalin Island.

While Mazur and Caprio were prominent Catholic clergymen with large followings, the expulsion in July of a young Slovak priest, Stanislav Krajnak, changed the pattern because he had barely spent a year in Russia and achieved little, Khrul said.

He said other Catholic priests have re-entered Russia without problem and a new priest recently arrived in Perm. "It is the unpredictability of the situation that frustrates us," he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church has named Mazur as one of the most active Roman Catholic missionaries on its "canonical territory" but said it has nothing to do with the expulsions.

The most recent deportee, Mackiewicz, oversaw one of the church's biggest parishes, a 500-member church in Rostov-on-Don. The parish is building a new 3,000-seat church in the southern city, Catholic officials said.

Khrul said the Catholic Church has no proof tying the Orthodox Church to the expulsions. He said the church wants more clarity from the government.

The Foreign Ministry, border guards and Federal Security Service have routinely declined to comment on the expulsions. Russia, like other countries, is under no obligation to explain why it refuses or revokes visas.

Khrul complained that Putin and former leaders Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev repeatedly declined Catholic requests for face-to-face meetings. "We are several hundred meters from each other, but that doesn't mean we have become closer," he quoted Kondrusiewicz as telling him in a telephone call last week from Sochi, where Putin was vacationing at the same time.

The Catholic Church is not the only faith whose foreign pastors have been expelled without explanation. Swedish Protestant pastor Leo Martensson, who worked in Russia for nine years on behalf of the Evangelical Christian Missionary Union, was deported last week from the southern Krasnodar region, Keston News Service reported Friday. Several other Protestant missionaries, mainly from charismatic churches, have also been expelled this year.