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
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
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
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