RUSSIA: Senior Catholic Priest Refused Visa for Third Time.

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 5 March 2001

A Polish Jesuit priest who for most of the past decade has played a crucial role in rebuilding Catholic institutions in Russia was refused a Russian entry visa on 27 February for the third time in a row. Father Stanislaw Opiela, the secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Russia and the rector of the St Thomas Aquinas College of Catholic Theology in Moscow, has now been unable to return to his duties for more than six months. Russian Foreign Ministry officials have so far refused to explain to Catholic leaders why he has been repeatedly refused a visa. Contacted by Keston News Service on 2 March, an official at the foreign ministry's department of consular service likewise declined to comment on Father Opiela's visa refusals.

Father Jerzy Karpinski, the current provincial of the Society of Jesus in Russia, told Keston on 2 March that the third successive refusal was issued without explanation by the foreign ministry's consular service department. The first time Father Opiela was invited by the Russian section of the international Catholic charity Caritas. The second time he was invited by the Apostolic Administration for European Russia as secretary of the bishops' conference. On 6 February the St Thomas Aquinas College of Catholic Theology invited Father Opiela to teach at the college. `We are in a critical situation,' said Father Karpinski. `He is the only one who can teach some Christian disciplines. Furthermore Father Stanislaw remains the secretary of the bishops' conference and rector of the St Thomas Aquinas College of Catholic Theology. I am having to carry out his duties for the moment.'

Father Bogdan Sewerynik, vicar general of the Apostolic Administration for Latin-rite Catholics in European Russia, said he was perplexed as this was the first such case involving a Catholic priest in Russia. `It's difficult to say what the reason is,' he told Keston on 2 March. `Maybe it's connected with the registration of the Jesuit order. The consular service of the Foreign Ministry refuses to tell us the grounds for refusal.' He confirmed that Father Opiela remains secretary of the bishops' conference, adding optimistically: `We believe Father Stanislaw will be able to return to Russia.'

The Ministry of Justice three times refused to reregister the Jesuits under Russia's controversial 1997 religion law, but Father Opiela insisted on the registration of the order in accordance with its own canonical rules and finally won this right through the Constitutional Court (see KNS 18 September 2000). Father Opiela was provincial of the Russian Independent Region of the Society of Jesus for eight years.

Father Opiela, who is at present in Poland, told Keston on 2 March that the state of uncertainty and expectation had `already lasted too long. It is amazing that no explanation is being given.' He reported that Archbishop Georg Zur, the papal nuncio in Russia, had requested clarification of the repeated refusals from the Foreign Ministry, but had received no answer. Father Opiela had also hoped that the visit to the Vatican of Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov in January might help to clarify the issue, but as far as he was aware his case had not been mentioned during Ivanov's meeting with Pope John Paul II.

A source who preferred to remain anonymous suggested to Keston that the refusal was connected with the fact that Father Opiela originally came to Russia as chaplain of the school attached to the Polish Embassy in Moscow. The source claims Father Opiela violated the Vienna Convention, which governs the behaviour of personnel with diplomatic status. `While an employee of the embassy he engaged in activity incompatible with the purpose of his entry to the country, i.e. he headed first one religious organisation - the Russian Independent Region of the Society of Jesus - then a second - the Russian Catholic Bishops' Conference.' Father Opiela categorically denies violating any conventions or residence rules. `I wasn't on the staff of the embassy. My diplomatic pass was just the same as that of the ambassador's Russian chauffeur.' (END)