When Russian authorities barred Roman Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur on 19 April from returning to his diocese in Siberia, according to the bishop, the Vatican had already removed what would appear to be the only specific pretext for the authorities' action. Bishop Mazur told Keston News Service by telephone on 21 April that "three days ago" the Vatican had accepted the Russian government's preferred name for a region disputed between Russia and Japan.
Earlier this year Russia's Foreign Ministry had criticised Bishop Mazur for referring to one region in his diocese as "Karafuto Prefecture", the name preferred by the Japanese from whom the area was captured during the Second World War. Mazur said that since then he sent a letter to Rome suggesting that the Vatican change the region's name to "southern Sakhalin". "Normally our policy is not to change historical names, but if using them creates problems then we can change them," Bishop Mazur told Keston.
The bishop was reached by Keston in Warsaw, where he said he is waiting for what he hopes will be a decision by Russia's President Vladimir Putin to reverse the 19 April action by border police at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-2 airport. The border police told Mazur that he would not be allowed to enter Russia, cancelling his one-year multi-entry visa and declaring that he was now on a black list of foreigners considered "persona non grata".
Officials have so far declined to explain why Bishop Mazur was expelled. Keston was unable to reach anyone on 21 April at the Border Guard Service or the Federal Security Service in Moscow.
Father Igor Kovalevsky, secretary to the Russian Catholic Bishops' Conference, told Keston in Moscow on 21 April that the bishops had issued an open letter in which "we expressed the hope that the authorities would take action in response to what had happened, as Russian Catholics could regard it as new persecution of their faith." And he added: "Historical experience teaches that the expulsion of a bishop without giving any reasons is linked to the attitude to the Church in which he serves."
However, Father Kovalevsky expressed some optimism that the decision to strip Bishop Mazur of his visa could be reversed. "We have just received a communication from the head of the Border Guard Service to say that in the case of Bishop Mazur a reconsideration of the decision is possible."
Mazur - one of Russia's four Catholic bishops - is a citizen of Poland but has served full-time in Russia since the late 1990s. Russia did not have a seminary for training indigenous Catholic priests until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so all but 17 of the 285 Catholic clergy now serving in Russia are foreigners.
Asked by Keston if other Roman Catholic clerics would now fear to leave Russia lest they too be denied permission to return, Bishop Mazur said most have no choice but to leave once a year in order to renew their visas. He expects a wave of priests to be leaving Russia in May, June and July for that purpose. He noted, however, that on 20 April - the day after the bishop's own encounter at the Moscow airport - several priests travelled from Poland to the Russian province of Kaliningrad without experiencing any difficulties.
However, the stripping of a valid multi-entry visa from Bishop Mazur happened exactly two weeks after the visa was removed from the passport of Italian citizen Father Stefano Caprio, who was leaving by aeroplane from Sheremetyevo airport (see KNS 11 April 2002). He told Keston by telephone from Milan on 19 April that he has still not received from the Russian Foreign Ministry a reasoned explanation of why his valid visa was abruptly cancelled as he left the country for a short visit to his homeland. Father Caprio has worked as a parish priest in Russia for twelve years.
Father Kovalevsky confirmed to Keston that neither Bishop Mazur, nor his colleague Bishop Clemens Pickel of southern European Russia based in Saratov, who is a German citizen, has received the Russian citizenship they have both applied for or a residence permit. In the past, both have been told that the only way they could get Russian citizenship is to marry a Russian citizen (see KNS 22 September 2000). Bishop Mazur noted, though, that he himself had applied for a long-term residence permit, and had been told that there was no objection from the Foreign Ministry.
Numerous foreign missionaries have been expelled from Russia in recent years, most of them Protestants from the United States or Europe (see KNS 20 July 2000). However, at the same time a range of religious organisations have foreign leaders, including the Lutherans, Armenian Apostolic Church, Salvation Army, Anglican Church and a number of Protestant churches. One of the two rival chief rabbis, Italian-born Berl Lazar, who had US citizenship, was recently granted Russian citizenship.
Bishop Mazur told Keston that he had good relations with the local authorities in his diocesan see of Irkutsk in south-eastern Siberia, where the Catholics have launched two orphanages and a hospice for the elderly. On the other hand, the bishop's cathedral was picketed during Sunday Mass on 21 April by 100 Orthodox protesters denouncing what they claimed was Roman Catholic "expansion" into Russia.
"Today is the Sunday of the Good Shepherd, a day of prayer for vocations to the priesthood," the bishop told Keston. "I really wanted to be in Irkutsk with my flock as their shepherd this Sunday." Instead, he reported, he said Mass at a church in Warsaw while awaiting further news from Russia.