Catholic bishop: Russian authorities deny visa to third priest, Putin fails to explain

MOSCOW - A third Catholic priest has been forced to leave Russia after authorities refused to issue him a new visa, the head of the Catholic Church in Russia said Wednesday.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz also said that President Vladimir Putin failed to explain the reasons behind the expulsions in his reply to a letter from Pope John Paul II. The pope had requested that Putin help one of the barred clergyman, a bishop, return to his diocese in Siberia.

Bishop Jerzy Mazur was turned back at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport in April when he returned from a visit to his native Poland. The incident came two weeks after the Rev. Stefano Caprio, an Italian who had served for more than a decade in Russia, had his visa revoked.

Kondrusiewicz told The Associated Press that a third priest, the Rev. Stanislav Krajniak, was recently refused a new visa. Krajniak, a Slovak citizen who worked in the city of Yaroslavl, about 240 kilometers ( 150 miles) northeast of Moscow, left the country before his visa expired on Tuesday, Kondrusiewicz said.

The visa denials began amid tense relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church, which has long criticized the Catholic presence in Russia, accusing the Vatican of poaching converts. Relations worsened in February when the Catholic Church converted its four "apostolic administrations" in Russia to full-fledged dioceses.

"The Orthodox Church doesn't give visas, so we can't say the Orthodox Church took away the visas," Kondrusiewicz said. "But it is such a coincidence that precisely after Feb. 11 (when the dioceses were established) ... this whole campaign began."

"This is a campaign against the Catholic Church," he added.

In May, the pope wrote to Putin asking that he intervene in the Mazur case and help the bishop return to his diocese, the Vatican said. The Vatican's foreign minister, Monsignor Jean Luis Tauran, complained in June that the Vatican had received no response from Putin.

Kondrusiewicz said Wednesday that Putin replied about a month ago.

"The answer did not satisfy us," and Putin did not explain the visa refusals, Kondrusiewicz said. He declined to give further details.