BY LUKE COPPEN
PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin has ignored a papal protest over the expulsion of a Catholic bishop from Russia, the Vatican revealed this week.
Pope John Pau) II wrote to the President on May 8 asking why the Russian authorities had refused to allow Bishop Jerzy Mazur to re-enter the country in April. Bishop Mazur, whose diocese of eastern Siberia covers the largest territory of any Catholic diocese, was 'ordered to fly back to his native Poland after officials at Moscow's international airport said he was not allowed to enter the country. The incident occurred two months after the Vatican angered the Russian Orthodox Church by creating four new dioceses in Russia.
Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican Secretary for Foreign Relations, told Vatican Radio this week that the Russian government had repeatedly ignored requests to allow Bishop Mazur to return to his diocese.
"On April 20, that is to say, practically the day after what happened, I wrote a letter to Mr Igor Ivanov, Foreign Affairs Minister of the Russian Federation, to express our great surprise about this decision and to ask him to explain the reasons that led the immigration authorities to take such a measure.
"Given that up to this today I have not received a reply from Mr Ivanov, the Pope wished to write a personal letter to President Putin to ask for virtually the same thing: to request his personal intervention so that a pastor, who from our point of view has always shown himself generous and loyal, could be restored to the Catholic community of that vast territory of the Russian Federation. President Putin has still not responded to the Pope."
The Russian government, Archbishop Tauran said, needed to show that it abided by the final document of the 1989 Vienna Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which committed signatory countries to allowing religious freedom.
"I think it is important that the Russian authorities realise the seriousness of this situation," Archbishop Tauran said. "In any case, we do not lose a single occasion to let them know, either through the mediation of the apostolic nuncio in Moscow or through the mediation of the ambassador accredited to the Vatican.
"The only thing we ask is to be able to serve our Catholics. Our sole ambition is to be at the service of those Catholics, who are Russian Catholics, and who want to be Catholics in the service of their country and of all the peoples who reside in it."
Bishop Mazur, 48, who has worked in the former Soviet Union since 1992, said he has never received an explanation of why he was refused entry to Russia.
"I am asking myself: 'What happened? Why?' I still don't have any answer," he said shortly after his expulsion. "As a bishop, I was preaching the Gospel. I was doing nothing against the constitution, nothing with politics, nothing."
Bishop Mazur, who serves an estimated 50,000 faithful from his base in Irkutsk, is the second Catholic priest to be expelled from Russia this year.
In early April, an Italian priest who had worked in Russia for 13 years was stripped of his Russian visa without explanation when he arrived from Milan at the same Moscow airport where Bishop Mazur was denied entry. The priest, Fr Stefano Capri°, left behind two parishes outside Moscow and is currently in Milan, trying to win the right to return.