WASHINGTON – Russian authorities recently denied entry to two Roman Catholic clergy after cancelling their visas moments following their arrival, declaring one to be on a “black list” of individuals barred from entering the Russian Federation. United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today reacted with dismay over the Russian Government’s most recent actions regarding the treatment of religious workers.
“I urge the Russian Government to quickly permit the Catholic priests to obtain visas and re-enter Russia,” said Rep. Smith. “As a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has pledged not to discriminate against individuals or communities on the grounds of their beliefs, as well as allow communities to select and replace religious personnel.”
Rep. Smith added, “the inability of its priests to enter Russia presents a special difficulty for the Catholic Church, since the vast majority of its clergy are foreigners. Consequently, the appearance of Russian authorities targeting Catholic clergy is of great concern. The Kremlin should take steps to counter these fears and ensure that these practices cease.”
Last Friday, April 19, Russian authorities summarily cancelled the visa of Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen and one of Russia’s four Catholic bishops, forcing him to return immediately to Warsaw. Bishop Mazur heads the Diocese of Saint Joseph in Irkutsk, the largest, in terms of territory, Catholic diocese in the world. Bishop Mazur was reportedly informed by Russian officials that he was on a “black list” of individuals barred from entering the Russian Federation.
In an earlier incident, Russian officials at the same airport seized the visa of Father Stefano Caprio, an Italian priest who has worked in Russia for more than a decade. When Father Caprio attempted to apply for a new visa, the Russian Embassy in Italy reportedly said he was banned from traveling to Russia, and would have to wait an entire year before submitting a new visa application.
Wednesday’s edition of The Moscow Times reports that two police officers on Monday stopped Damian Stepien, a Franciscan friar from Poland, after leaving the city’s Catholic cathedral. The officers reportedly seized his passport, destroyed his photo then discarded the passport.
Russian authorities also denied entry last spring to Friar Stanislaw Opiela, head of the Jesuit order in Russia. In March, Russian officials detained Pentecostal pastor Aleksei Ledyayev upon his arrival in Moscow from the Latvian capital Riga and held him for ten hours before putting him on a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania.
The low number of Russian citizens qualified to serve as Catholic priests is the result of decades of Communist-era repression, often focusing specifically on Catholic Churches. Further, relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow have deteriorated since the Vatican’s decision in February to establish formal Russian dioceses in place of previous apostolic administrations.
The Moscow Times also reported that “Pro-Kremlin lawmakers and nationalist activists” came together Tuesday to protest “an encroaching Western expansion led by the United States and the Vatican.” The coalition will organize a “nationwide day of protest” this Sunday. The group labeled the Roman Catholic Church’s decision to strengthen its dioceses as a threat to Russia’s statehood.
The recent visa confiscations and expulsions of Catholic clergy are the latest moves in a series of actions by the Russian Government concerning religious freedom, which the Helsinki Commission has followed closely.
In 1998, Moscow city prosecutors closed the Salvation Army’s presence there, asserting it was a paramilitary organization because of the word “army” in its name, and uniforms and military titles for members. Ironically, city officials used provisions of Russia’s 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations to order the “liquidation.” Overturning lower court decisions, however, Russia’s Constitutional Court later ruled the case against the Salvation Army was based on a misinterpretation of current law.
In a February 2000 Helsinki Commission hearing on religious liberty in Russia, witnesses offered almost prophetic testimony of today’s human rights conditions in Russia.
Robert Seiple, then Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, testified, “In Russia there is the potential for events to bring about a decline of religious freedom. There is also the potential for us and like-minded advocates of religious freedom to take steps to prevent this from happening.” Seiple cited instances of local officials using the 1997 law to harass “so-called ‘non-traditional’ religious groups.”
Rabbi Lev Shemtov, Director of American Friends of Lubavitch, testified that incidents of anti-Semitism in Russia had reached alarming levels, and there was an undeniable trend toward lawlessness.