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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK
East-West Church tension grows
Pope gives open-air mass in Kazakhstan
The Pope's visit to Astana drew the largest crowd since independence
The Russian Orthodox Church has reacted angrily to a number of moves by the Vatican which it considers an encroachment on its territory.

The Moscow Patriarchate criticised a decision by the Vatican to set up two dioceses in Kazakhstan as "another severe blow to Orthodox-Catholic relations".

And it reiterated its opposition to a proposed visit to Russia by Pope John Paul II, saying it was unimpressed by a Vatican proposal to return an 18th-century icon.

The Vatican's course is aimed exclusively at exacerbating existing difficulties
Moscow Patriarchate statement
Relations between the two Churches are strained, with the Orthodox Church accusing Catholics of trying to convert its followers in Russia and other former Soviet republics.

The patriachate said the Vatican had failed to consult it about the Kazakh dioceses - in the capital, Astana, and the southern city of Almaty - despite the fact that most Kazakh Christians are Orthodox.

"The Vatican's course is aimed exclusively at exacerbating existing difficulties," it added.

The Vatican's decision coincided with a visit to Kazakhstan by its state secretary, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who laid a foundation stone for a new cathedral being built in the city of Karagandy.

Kazakhstan, a mainly Muslim country, has up to 500,000 Catholics - mostly from ethnic Polish, German and Ukrainian communities deported by Stalin from other parts of the USSR.

The Pope visited in 2001, attracting the biggest crowd in Astana since independence.

No reason for visit

The Vatican has been trying to arrange a stopover for the Pope in the city of Kazan, east of Moscow, on his way to Mongolia in August.

But the Orthodox Church said that an icon, the return of which has been proposed by the Vatican, is a copy and cannot be considered a reason for the Pope's visit.

The Church's statement said it had nothing to do with a famous 16th century miracle-working icon, the Kazan Virgin, which was thought to have been sold to the Vatican after the Bolshevik Revolution.

"The prospects of the Pope's meeting Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II depend entirely on the Vatican's readiness to make steps towards a real settlement of the problems between the two Churches," the statement read.

The Roman Catholic Church maintains that it has a moral right to be active in Russia, which had substantial Catholic communities before 1917.

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