Forum18 – Despite being invited by registered local religious communities, foreign religious workers may still be denied entry to Russia , Forum 18 News Service has found. Moscow-based religious rights lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev estimated to Forum 18 in April 2005 that the number of foreign religious workers barred from Russia was rising, although this is difficult to corroborate as many missionaries prefer not to report visa denials. Those already barred are still unable to return, even if they lead religious communities within Russia, such as Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev, the overall leader of congregations of the charismatic New Generation Church who is based in Latvia, or Baptist pastor Dan Pollard, who has led his church in Russia’s Far East from the United States since his expulsion in March 1998.
The absence of foreign religious workers is keenly felt by local religious communities. Speaking to Forum 18 in June, for example, Saratov-based Catholic bishop Clemens Pickel lamented the lack of a parish priest in North Ossetia after Polish citizen Fr Janusz Blaut was denied a new visa in October 2004: “I can’t find a priest for Vladikavkaz it’s too far to send someone every Sunday, and it’s only 20km (12 miles) from Beslan. I can’t send an inexperienced young Russian, or a new foreign priest either.” Fr Blaut the most recent foreign Catholic cleric to be excluded from Russia – had worked in North Ossetia for ten years.
A few foreign religious workers have been able to overturn their bans, however. On 5 September a secretary at the Moscow administration of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in European Russia told Forum 18 that its German bishop Siegfried Springer, who was deported in April 2005 (see F18News 4 May 2005 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=555>), has since been granted a new one-year multi-entry visa. Also on 5 September, a secretary at the St Petersburg-based Association of Christian Churches in Russia told Forum 18 that one of its overseers, the South African Hugo Van Niekerk, who oversees 80 evangelical communities in central and southern Russia , was denied a visa in July 2005 but has since managed to return by changing the religious organisation inviting him.
Following Pollard’s 1998 ban the first to be documented – the trend in such exclusions reached a peak in 2002. The expulsion from Russia of five Catholic clergy in that year alone brought the total number of documented cases to 33, and attracted strong international criticism. On 7 November 2002, a group of Helsinki Commission members and US congressmen wrote to Russian president Vladimir Putin expressing their “growing concern over the pattern of denial or cancellation of visas for foreign religious workers of minority faiths.” The group also urged “the establishment of a policy which will ensure the full respect for the right of these religious communities to select, appoint and replace their personnel in accordance with their requirements and standards,” and pointed out that “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.”
Since that letter, however, Forum 18 has obtained details of a further 12 cases, in addition to another seven previously undocumented expulsions occurring prior to November 2002. (A complete list of foreign religious workers barred from Russia to date whose details are known to Forum 18 is given below.) Moscow-based lawyer Sergei Sychev told Forum 18 in April 2005 that he investigated 12 instances of foreign religious workers denied entry to Russia in 2003 all Protestant – but stopped recording them in 2004. If the authorities maintain that the foreigner concerned has been excluded “in the interests of state security” under Article 27, Part 1 of the federal law on entry to and exit from Russia as is usual if a reason is given at all he or she is normally reluctant to challenge the decision in court for fear of damaging the religious organisations which invited them, he added. Under the 1997 federal religion law, local religious organisations hold “the exclusive right” to invite foreign religious workers to the Russian Federation [Go To Full Story]