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Vatican defends its right to spread its message, says it does not limit other people’s freedom

    VATICAN CITY — The Vatican, which has been accused of aggressively seeking souls in Russia and some other countries, said Friday it has every right to spread its message and accept converts but that non-Catholics must never be forced to embrace the faith.
    The Vatican’s doctrinal office issued guidelines on the missionary policy of the Roman Catholic Church, saying there is ‘‘growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective.’’
    ‘‘Often is it maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom,’’ said the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
    The office head, American Cardinal William Levada, told a Vatican news conference that the ‘‘work of evangelization belongs to the very nature of the church ...’’ and that it was both the ‘‘desire and duty’’ of Christians to share the gift of faith.
    With the fall of Communism and subsequent end to bars on religious practice across Eastern Europe, the Russian Orthodox Church has accused Catholics of improperly seeking converts in traditionally Orthodox areas — a claim the Vatican has always rejected.
    Roman Catholics have also faced tensions in several states in India, accused by Hindu nationalists of aggressive attempts to convert Hindus.
    The Vatican restated its position that the church ‘‘severely prohibits forcing people to embrace the faith or leading or enticing them by improper technique; by the same token, she also strongly defends the right that no one be deterred from the faith by deplorable ill treatment.’’
    The document did not cite particular countries, but it did indirectly refer to Orthodox areas and said ‘‘true respect for the tradition and spiritual riches’’ of such countries is required.
    It also said that should a non-Catholic Christian seek to become a Catholic ‘‘this is to be respected as the work of the Holy Spirit and as an expression of freedom of conscience and religion.’’
    That ‘‘would not be a question of proselytism in the negative sense that has been attributed to this term,’’ it said.
    The Rev. Agostino Di Noia, undersecretary of the doctrinal office, said in an interview with Vatican Radio that ‘‘it seemed to us that the church’s freedom to evangelize was being questioned, as if it were an intrusion on other people’s freedom of religion.’’
    ———
    Associated Press reporter Daniela Petroff contributed to this report from the Vatican.

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