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Do missionaries threaten Russia?


There is increasing concern over the number of church workers being refused entry to Russia, but details are not easy to obtain, says a new report released this month.

Forum 18, a Christian news service promoting religious freedom, said that 52 religious workers have been officially excluded from Russia since 1998. A religious-rights lawyer based in Moscow informed them, however, that the number is probably higher, and rising. The lawyer, Anatoli Pchelintsev, said that information was hard to corroborate because some Churches and mission agencies prefer not to reveal visa details for fear of future problems.

In June, the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Clemente a Saratov, the Rt Revd Clemens Pickel, told Forum 18 that his long-standing Polish parish priest in North Ossetia had been denied a visa renewal. Fr Janusz Blaut had worked in Russia for ten years.

Bishop Pickel told Forum 18: "I can't find a priest for the parish of Vladikavkaz - it's too far to send someone every Sunday, and it's only 20 km from Beslan. I can't send an inexperienced young Russian, or a new foreign priest, either."

Others who have been barred have found it difficult to re-enter, and say their visa-renewal applications are constantly rejected. The Revd Aleksei Ledyayev, leader of the New Generation Church, a charismatic congregation in Latvia, and an American Baptist minister, the Revd Dan Pollard, have both been unable to enter Russia since their re-applications for visas were rejected.
  Mr Pollard ran an independent Baptist church, which he registered in 1996 in the Pacific port of Vanino. In March 1998, however, he was expelled after his re-application for a visa was refused. Since then, he has been leading the church from the United States.

A few religious workers have been successful in chasing up refused applications. This month, a secretary at the Moscow administration of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church told Forum 18 that its German bishop, the Rt Revd Siegfried Springer, who was deported in April, had been granted a new one-year visa. The same day, a secretary at the St Petersburg-based Association of Christian Churches in Russia said that one of its South African leaders, who oversees 80 Evangelical communities in Russia, was granted a visa by applying through a different organisation.

The worst year for exclusions was 2002, when five Roman Catholic clergy were among those refused visas. Members of the US Congress and of the Helsinki Commission wrote to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, expressing "growing concern over the pattern of denial or cancellation of visas for foreign religious workers of minority faiths".

They also called on President Putin to establish a policy to allow religious communities to appoint personnel, saying that the rejection of visa applications "undermined the rights of individuals from these faiths to practise their religion".

Since then, Forum 18 says it has come across a further 12 cases, as well as another seven previously undocumented expulsions occurring before November 2002.

The Moscow-based Evangelical Association for Spiritual Renewal said 2003 had been a difficult year, because the official body handling visa applications had changed from the Foreign Ministry to the Interior Ministry. By 2004, however, the situation had calmed down.

A different story is told by the Anglican chaplaincy in Moscow. A spokesman said that they enjoyed a close working relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, and that this smoothed relations with the Department for External Church Relations.

He suggested that members of other denominations might have found the way barred to them because of a failure on their part to acknowledge the supremacy of the Russian Orthodox Church "and to exercise good common sense".

"Those of us of the expatriate community who minister in the Lord's name in this wonderful country, should do so with great sensitivity and great tact.

"Non-Orthodox denominations have to contend regularly with many miles of red-tape, bureaucracy. Some denominations perceive this red-tape as persecution or harrassment of their particular group, whereas, I suspect, they need to spend more time studying the Russian psyche!"

Since President Putin came to power in 2000, religious extremism has been seen as a threat to Russia's security, particularly in border zones. One of the first documents Mr Putin signed as president was a national security policy, in which he called for "the counteraction of the negative influence of foreign religious organisations and missionaries".

Missionary work by the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant groups was cited as a threat to national security under the policy. It said that foreign organisations sent workers "under the guise of providing humanitarian aid", who "developed self-alienation from the Russian state among various sectors of the population . . . particularly in border areas".

A report by the BBC in January said the Russian government was backing a Bill that could lead to a ban on foreign visitors who show "disrespect" for the country. Despite being criticised by human-rights groups, the Bill is being promoted as enhancing Russia's national security. As both officials and the Russian media stoke fears of "religious expansion", it remains to be seen how the situation will develop.
The full text of the report is at www.forum18.org .

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