RUSSIA: Italian Catholic Priest Stripped of Visa.

Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 11 April 2002

Catholic priest Father Stefano Caprio, who is in charge of two parishes in towns near Moscow, has been banned from travelling to Russia, Keston News Service has learned. His visa was taken away from him without warning at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-2 airport and the Russian consulate in Milan has refused to issue him with a new one. "We have the right to do this, just like any other country, and we do not have to give any reasons," an official at Russia's Foreign Ministry told Keston in Moscow on 10 April.

Keston has learnt that two meetings are scheduled today (11 April) to seek to resolve the case: the Russian ambassador to the Vatican has been summoned to discuss the case with Vatican officials, while an official of the Italian embassy in Moscow is to meet the head of the foreign ministry's consular department.

Since 1990 Fr Caprio, an Italian citizen, has been priest of the Catholic parishes in Vladimir and Ivanovo, and has taught at the St Thomas Aquinas College of Catholic Theology in Moscow and the Russian State Humanities University. Fr Caprio told Keston by telephone from Milan on 10 April that on 5 April he flew to Italy for a few days to visit his parents. At the airport, immigration officials tore out a page from his passport that contained his one-year multiple-entry visa, without telling him. Fr Caprio only discovered its absence in Milan.

On 8 April, Fr Caprio applied to the Russian consulate in Milan for another visa. Yevgeny Smirnov, consul general, told him that he was banned from travelling to Russia and that he would only be able to submit documents for a new visa after 12 months. Friends sent Fr Caprio an article "Pastor separated from his parishioners" from the Izvestiya newspaper of 10 April, from which he learned that his name had been placed on a list, compiled by the special services, of people who had been banned from travelling to Russia.

Fr Caprio does not know what could explain this. He recalled that two years ago a small-circulation Russian newspaper Versiya carried an article "Why does the Pope have such big ears?" written by Andrei Soldatov, which he did not take seriously at the time. The article alleged that there was a network of Vatican spies operating in Russia, headed by Fr Caprio. "These accusations were inspired by my years as a student in the Russicum," he suggested. The Russicum is a Catholic college founded in Rome in 1927 to train priests to replace the dying Russian Orthodox Church, and who would subsequently be sent to Russia as Catholic Eastern-rite missionaries. After the Second Vatican Council, the purpose of the Russicum was reviewed and the Vatican decided to work together with the Orthodox Church to promote a new evangelisation. However, the Russian Orthodox hierarchy still views the Russicum's graduates with suspicion.

"We have a Catholic Eastern-rite community," said Fr Caprio, "but it is only a small part of my work in Russia. It is true that everything I have done as parish priest, publicist and teacher has been for the Vatican, but you could say the same of any Catholic priest."

Speaking to Keston in Moscow on 10 April, neither the secretary of the representation of the Holy See in Russia Fr Tomas Grysa nor the secretary of the Bishops' Conference Fr Igor Kovalevsky could explain why Fr Caprio had been stripped of his visa.

However, this is not the first time a Catholic priest who had long worked in Russia has been stripped of his visa. Fr Stanislaw Opiela, secretary of the Bishops' Conference and head of the Jesuit order in Russia, was banned from travelling to Russia without reasons being given (see KNS 5 March 2001).

Catholic priests are not the only people to have been subjected to mysterious bans on entry to Russia. Anatoly Pchelintsev, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Religion and Law, told Keston that on 14 March the Pentecostal pastor Aleksei Ledyayev, who had arrived from the Latvian capital Riga for a meeting with fellow pastors, was detained at Sheremetyevo-2 airport. Officials of the Federal border police held him under lock and key for 10 hours without explaining why, and then escorted him onto a flight for Vilnius. The Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, of which Pchelintsev is also a co-director, intends to lodge a complaint against the pastor's unlawful detention with the general procuracy in the near future. (END)