(Washington) - Eleven Members of the United States Helsinki Commission and six other Members of Congress have urged Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to correct a pattern of religious discrimination against foreign religious workers from targeted minority faiths.
“Mr. President, we are confident your government will not permit the denial of visas for foreign religious workers without due cause,” the Members wrote to Putin. “Therefore, we urge you to take corrective measures to ensure the rights of all believers, including those from minority faiths, to practice their religion without distinction, and see the end to discriminatory denials of visas to religious workers from select minority religious communities.”
In their letter, the Members expressed “growing concern over the pattern of denial or cancellation of visas for foreign religious workers of minority faiths, adversely affecting Catholic and Protestant communities throughout the Russian Federation.”
“We seek your assistance in resolving the outstanding cases and urge the establishment of a policy which will ensure full respect for the right of these religious communities to select, appoint and replace their personnel in accordance with their requirements and standards,” the letter reads.
“Artificial impediments imposed by federal authorities that prevent foreign religious workers from taking up their clerical responsibilities in the Russian Federation ultimately undermine the rights of individuals from these faiths to practice their religion,” the Members wrote.
The Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in communist and post-communist countries, documented 19 cases in 2002 where foreign religious workers were affected by government action. Keston recently issued a list of 33 individuals either barred from entering Russia or forced to leave under various circumstances since 1998.
According to Keston, the only documented visa denial in 1998 was the case of U.S.-based Baptist missionary Dan Pollard in March. The pattern begins to grow, however, in 1999 when two missionary visas were denied and a third was revoked. Russian officials revoked one visa and denied four others in 2000.
The escalation continued in 2001 when authorities revoked two visas, denied three others and deported Evangelical missionary Craig Rucin of the United States. In 2002 alone, Keston indicates, the Russian Government’s action against foreign religious workers soared to at least 19: 7 revoked, 8 denied and 4 deported.
Despite the workers’ valid visas, Russian officials purportedly invented fictitious charges against the workers, ignoring their church-related employment history in Russia extending several years in some cases.
The Members note that past Soviet practices left many minority religious communities without the capacity to produce trained clergy domestically. As a result, many churches throughout Russia now rely on clergy and religious workers from abroad to meet their spiritual needs.
United States Helsinki Commission leaders signing the letter were Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Ranking Member Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) and Ranking Member Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD). Also signing the letter were Commissioners Senator Gordon H. Smith (R-OR), Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA), Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL) and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD).
Additional Members of Congress signing the letter include Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), Rep. Jim Turner (D-TX), Rep. Marcy Kaptur, (D-OH), Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel (D-PA).
As a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has pledged to promote tolerance and non-discrimination and counter threats to security such as intolerance, aggressive nationalism, racist chauvinism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
The Commission maintains on its Internet Web site, www.csce.gov, materials organized by countries and issues, including those relating to Russia and religious freedom.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.