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Pope's creation of Russian dioceses angers Orthodox

The Russian Orthodox Church has described Pope John Paul II's decision to create four permanent Catholic dioceses in Russia as "an unfriendly act" and said the move reduced the chances of a meeting between (Russian) Patriarch Alexiy II and the Pope.

Moscow patriarchate spokesman Igor Vyzhanov called the elevation of the former administrative districts an "unfriendly act which fails to take account of the Russian Orthodox Church's interests."

The two former Catholic dioceses in Russia were shut down by the Bolsheviks after 1917, and were restored as districts in 1991. The church is currently estimated to have about 500,000 faithful.

The Russian Orthodox Church views warily the gradual re-emergence of the Catholic church following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church accuses the Catholics of "expansionism" and "missionary work" in Russia and Ukraine, and is particularly angered by the actions of the Ukrainian Uniates who -- Russian churchmen say -- have taken over many Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine by force. The Uniate Church is a branch of the Orthodox church in communion with Rome.

Vsevolod Chaplin, the spokesman for the Orthodox patriarchate's foreign relations department, said on Monday the four Catholic dioceses "creates an alternative church in Russia," and described Pope John Paul's decision as a "challenge to the Russian Orthodox Church. It is like the Orthodox Church appointing another pope in Rome."

But Vatican spokesman Joachim Navarro-Valls said the creation of the four dioceses was needed "to improve the pastoral assistance to Catholics present in the region, as they have insistently requested." He said the Russian government was not opposed to the change.

The Holy See's representative in Moscow, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondraschewicz, argued on Russian television that the Russian Orthodox Church had "set up many of its own dioceses overseas, in Catholic Poland and Lithuania."