Roman Catholic Church in Russia appeals to human rights groups to protest what it calls an anti-Catholic campaign

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia appealed Thursday to Russian and international human rights groups to protest what he called a "large-scale anti-Catholic campaign" that includes the expulsion of priests and the vilification of Catholics.

"We are seeing once again a replay of the drama of the Catholic Church in Russia, which having endured cruel persecution in the 20th century and being almost everywhere destroyed, is undergoing new trials after a decade of difficult development," Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz said in an open appeal addressed to human rights groups and "all people of good will."

Kondrusiewicz noted that five foreign-born Catholic priests have had their Russian visas revoked this year, the latest on Tuesday when Father Edvard Mackiewicz was turned back at the Belarus-Poland border by Russian border guards, who augment Belarus' border guards.

He said that Catholics have also experienced bans on constructing new churches and vandalism and desecration of existing churches.

"Recently, a large-scale anti-Catholic campaign has been launched in this country," Kondrusiewicz said. As part of the campaign, he said, "a mythological image of a 'Catholic enemy'" is being created.

Tensions have risen around the Catholic Church following Pope John Paul's visits to former Soviet republics and the Vatican's decision to upgrade its so-called apostolic administrations in Russia to full dioceses.

The Russian Orthodox Church complains that Roman Catholics are poaching converts from among people who traditionally would have been Orthodox adherents. The Catholic Church insists it is not seeking converts, but simply trying to provide pastoral services to Russia's estimated 600,000 Catholics, a tiny minority in a nation of 144 million where two-thirds of the population consider themselves Orthodox.

Kondrusiewicz said the Catholic Church has asked the Russian government to explain why its priests were being expelled, but "we have received no clear answer."

"This severe reality in effect throws us back to the time of the former regime when Russian Catholics were left without pastors or normal spiritual ministry," he said in the appeal.

Saying that Catholics were being made into "second-class citizens," Kondrusiewicz appealed to human rights groups to protest the government's actions to prevent "a new tragedy from beginning in Russia."