Washington, DC USA - As much of the world experiences a greater sense of joy and goodwill often associated with the celebration of Christmas, Russian Federation authorities have intensified their campaign against one of the country's smaller religious communities, leaving some Roman Catholic clergy out in the cold.
In the past two years, the Russian government has barred seven non-citizen Roman Catholic clergymen from entering or remaining in Russia and ministering to the needs of Catholics in that predominately Orthodox country. Five of these cases took place this year alone. The explanations of the visa denials or cancellations range from silence to ambiguous security threat allegations. What is clear is the responsibility of the Russian Government, as one of the original signatories to the 1975 Helsinki Accords, to respect the rights of the Catholic community to organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structure and to select, appoint and replace their clergy.
While the vast majority of Russians are traditionally Orthodox by faith or culture, the Roman Catholic Church has existed in Russia for more than 200 years. Estimates of the number of Russian Catholics range from the tens of thousands to more than one million, with over 200 parishes spread throughout the vast Russian Federation.
Soviet repression produced an acute shortage of native-born ordained Catholic priests, and with only one seminary currently operating in all of Russia, the church must look beyond its borders to find trained clergy to serve the diverse community. As a result, 85 percent of the almost 235 Catholic priests working in Russia today are not native Russians.
Historically, relations between both secular authorities and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have been difficult. In an echo of grievances going back for centuries, the Orthodox leadership accused the Vatican of infringing upon the former's "canonical territory" by seeking converts among traditionally Orthodox faithful. The Moscow Patriarchate was especially incensed earlier this year when the Vatican regularized the status of apostolic administrations by establishing four dioceses in the country.
Undoubtedly, there have been dramatic improvements in the area of religious freedom since the demise of the Soviet Union. The Catholic Church in Russia has operated through apostolic administrations, a structural arrangement the Vatican establishes in areas where political circumstances make it difficult for the church to operate normally. The upgrading of these apostolic administrations to dioceses was an assertion by the Vatican that Russia had become a country where Catholic clergy and laity could practice their faith openly and properly.
Interconfessional disputes are not a new phenomenon, but the corresponding spate of visa denials and other measures suggest that the Russian Government is not playing a neutral role. In fact, the government seemed to tip its hand when a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official told Orthodox clergy that the creation of the four Catholic dioceses was "unacceptable." Concern with government pressure escalated in early December, when a Moscow newspaper leaked a government report on "religious extremism" that identifies the Catholic Church and other "foreign confessions" as potential threats to Russia's national security. (The co-author of the report, Russia's nationalities minister, subsequently claimed that the report in question was nothing more than an analysis of "how confessions develop and expand in Russia.")
While we recognize the rights of all sovereign states to regulate the entry of foreign visitors into their countries and deny visas to applicants who pose a credible threat or are otherwise excludable, the handling of these visa applications smacks of a vendetta aimed primarily at Catholic clergy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the right things about protecting religious freedom. His administration, meanwhile, continues its campaign of targeting Catholic clergy for apparent retribution, to the ultimate detriment of Russia's Catholic community.
As members of the United States Helsinki Commission, we urge President Putin to ensure the actions of his government are consistent with his statements, and that the clergy who seek nothing more than serving the needs of Russia's Catholic minority are allowed to continue their vital work.
As Orthodox, Catholics and other Christian communities prepare to celebrate Christmas, our hope and expectation is that goodwill indeed will prevail and that this matter will be resolved and that the clergy will at long last be allowed in.
Rep. Christopher Smith, Republican of New Jersey, is the Co-Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Sen. Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, also serves on the Commission.
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