Turning inward, Russia refuses visas to foreign religious workers

AP, Dec. 14, 2002

MOSCOW · Every three months, the Rev. Emile Dumas goes through the same, unsettling routine — applying to the Russian government for an extension of his entry visa.

It’s by no means a formality for Dumas, an American priest who leads a small Roman Catholic parish on Russia’s Far Eastern Sakhalin Island.

At least five Catholic priests have had their visas revoked this year, with no warning. In September, five U.S. Protestants were refused permission to return to the central Russian city of Kostroma, where they ran a church and training courses for orphans. The government also turned down visa extensions for 30 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers midway through their two-year tour, leaving just half the current crop at their posts in Russia.

“I take it one day at a time,” Dumas said in a phone interview.

Religious activists, embassy officers and tour agents all confirm a spike in the number of Russian visa refusals over the past two years.

The Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom, has about 40 foreign religious workers on its list of visa denials since 1998, with most refused since 2000. Others have not publicized their cases in hopes of reversing the refusal, or for fear of endangering their Russian congregations.

The refusals are one measure of the Russian government’s attempts, after a decade of openness to the West, to turn the nation inward by keeping foreigners out.

The freedom that many Russians had thirsted for after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union brought a flood of foreign cultural and religious influences. Some welcomed those; others perceived them as crowding out Russia’s own values.

Visa authorities appear sometimes to be working hand-in-hand with Russian Orthodox prelates who fear the spread of Catholicism and evangelical churches in regions where Orthodox influence was wiped out during 70 years of communism.

In meetings with Orthodox prelates, the Federal Security Service or FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, has pronounced its mission to protect Russia’s “spiritual security.”

In other cases, broader foreign policy concerns, such as Russia’s close relationship with China, determine whether a visa will be issued.

This past summer, for example, Russia refused to admit the Dalai Lama, the second time it denied entrance to the spiritual leader for Russia’s 1 million Buddhists, and for Tibetans who resist Chinese rule. Russia appears to have little interest in risking its burgeoning economic and political relationship with Beijing to satisfy its Buddhists’ desire to personally receive the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

“Buddhists have become hostages to Russia’s foreign policy interests,” said Maya Malygina, spokeswoman for the Moscow Buddhist Center.

The new ascendancy of the FSB, President Vladimir Putin’s professional alma mater, and its discomfort with foreigners also play a key role. The only explanation Catholic leaders ever got for the decision to kick out Bishop Jerzy Mazur was that the ruling came from “competent organs,” the code word for the FSB, in connection with a law prohibiting the entry of people considered a threat to state security.

“We have the feeling that we are being punished for something, or they’re hinting that we should behave differently,” said Viktor Khrul, a Catholic spokesman in Moscow. “But how, for what, why? This is not clear.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday December 18, 2002.
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