Russia Expels Priest, Vatican Slams 'Persecution'

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) - Border guards in Russia's far east said on Tuesday they had been ordered to expel a Catholic priest, prompting Vatican protests that Moscow is cracking down on the church in Russia.

The expulsion, the third in six months, deals a fresh blow to tense relations between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church, which accuses Catholics of trying to convert its members.

"Jaroslaw Wiszniewski was expelled as he has been put on a list of people not allowed to enter Russia," a spokesman for the border guards said in the region's largest city, Khabarovsk.

Wiszniewski, a Polish national, was detained on Monday when he landed at Khabarovsk airport on a flight from Japan. He was put on a flight back to Niigata, Japan on Tuesday.

He is the third foreign Roman Catholic priest, including a bishop, to be blacklisted and stripped of his visa without explanation. Russian authorities also refused to renew the visa of a fourth priest, also without explanation.

"This is a fact that is so grave that some people are already speaking of persecution," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said. "It is even more grave because the Holy See has not received any official explanation about the reasons which are behind this expulsion."

He said the Vatican was tackling the problem through diplomatic channels.

The Russian Orthodox Church on its official Web site accused Wiszniewski of "open proselytism" after two of his parishioners distributed free Catholic literature.

Minority denominations in Russia have long complained of summary expulsions and harassment, but these were generally focused on marginal groups.

Crackdowns on the Catholic Church have increased since the Vatican announced plans earlier this year to create four full-blown dioceses in Russia.

"It is unclear why the Foreign Ministry has picked on these priests, targeting some and not others," said Felix Corley, editor of the British-based Keston News Service, which monitors religious freedom in post-Communist countries.

"It is unclear where the instructions come from, but even if (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has not ordered these expulsions, he has deliberately not overturned the decisions."

Russian Catholics are estimated to number about 600,000 in a population of some 147 million. Patriarch Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has blocked a visit by 82-year-old Pope John Paul, though Putin says he favors it.