A legal case in the Russian far eastern town of Magadan is to decide on whether a foreign citizen without a residence permit may lead a Catholic parish. The Church of Christ's Nativity, headed by Father Michael Shields, has received a second warning from the justice department of Magadan region with a demand that it halt what officials claim is a contravention of Russia's 1997 law on religion. However, the lawyer representing the parish told Keston News Service that he disputes this interpretation of the law and the parish is challenging it at Magadan city court. "Nowhere does the law state that a leader should be selected or appointed from the ranks of those whom he leads," Vladimir Ryakhovsky insisted. "Believers have the right to invite a foreign citizen to carry out religious or other forms of activity." This is a particularly important issue for the Catholic Church in Russia, as the majority of its priests are foreign citizens, most of whom have not managed to acquire a residence permit.
The Magadan parish was registered on 1 April 1999 with Father Shields, a United States citizen, as its leader. As early as 1998 he applied for a residence permit, but was refused. The Magadan justice department sent its first warning to the parish on 8 February of this year, saying it should stop breaking the law which states that a foreign citizen may not be a parish priest. The warning declared that if the parish did not take action, the justice department would launch a legal action for the liquidation of the parish's official registration.
Ryakhovsky, director of the Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, told Keston on 15 April that with the help of lawyers from his centre the parish had replied to the justice department that it did not accept the official warning. On 26 March the parish received a second warning. "We are prepared to appeal to the court to have the justice department's demand declared unlawful," Ryakhovsky reported.
On 18 April, documents prepared by the parish's lawyers were handed over to the Magadan city court, parishioner Lyubov Bolshakova told Keston by telephone from Magadan on 22 April. She said the justice department had appealed to the public prosecutor's office to prosecute, but that the public prosecutor did not find any contravention of the law in the fact that the parish was headed by a foreign citizen.
The official of the Magadan justice department responsible for religious organisations, Natalya Denisova, told Keston on 22 April that her department had issued the warning about liquidation because according to the law the leader of a religious organisation must at least have a residence permit. Asked by Keston how the parish had been registered despite this alleged contravention of the law, she explained that "there was a huge amount of documents, and it was simply overlooked".
In January Denisova asked the Department for Visas and Registration at the Ministry of Internal Affairs for a list of people who had a residence permit, and discovered that the leaders of five local religious organisations did not have one. She decided to start with the Catholic parish. Denisova said she did not know on what criteria a residence permit was issued, and remarked that "the Chinese who come here to trade at the market are issued with permits immediately, but religious people are not".
Of the 285 Catholic priests working in Russia only 17 are Russian citizens, while no more than 15 of the foreign priests have residence permits, Father Igor Kovalevsky, general secretary of the Russian Catholic Bishops' Conference, told Keston in Moscow on 22 April. He said that clergy in other parishes had received similar warnings that they may not lead Catholic parishes, including Bishop Clemens Pickel of southern European Russia (a German citizen). His apostolic administration, upgraded to a diocese last February, has also not been registered because of the refusal of the authorities over many years to issue him a residence permit.