RUSSIA: Why Was Catholic Bishop Expelled?

Geraldine Fagan and Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 24 April 2002

Varied responses from the Russian state authorities continue to obscure the reasons for the annulment on 19 April of Bishop Jerzy Mazur's valid visa when he tried to return to his Irkutsk-based diocese from his native Poland (see KNS 22 April 2002).

In an interview broadcast by Vatican Radio on 23 April, the bishop stated that while at Moscow's Sheremyetevo-2 airport he was at no stage given a reason for the actions being taken against him. According to a 20 April Vatican news report, however, "secretary to the Holy See's representative to the Russian Federation, Fr Tomasz Grysa, was told by a border police official that Polish citizen Jerzy Mazur was on the list of persons no longer allowed to enter the Russian Federation."

An official at the press centre of the Federal Borderguard Service was bewildered that Keston should choose on 22 April to query the incident with his organisation. Preferring to remain anonymous, he explained that the Borderguard Service did not have the authority to annul visas: "If someone has a visa, we let them in, if not, then we don't." The official expressed doubt as to the reliability of reports that his organisation had annulled Bishop Mazur's visa, and declared that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the body empowered to take such action.

Also contacted by Keston on 22 April, Vladimir Ashurkov of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press and Information Department regretted that he was unable to provide any information concerning Bishop Mazur's situation, since, he said, he had not been issued with any. He declined to confirm even whether his ministry was the organ which dealt with such issues. On 23 April Russian news agency Interfax reported Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko as saying that Bishop Mazur was refused entry to Russia "strictly in accordance with Article 27 of the 1996 Russian Federation law on the procedure for entering and leaving the country." (The four provisions of this article cite the following grounds for refusal of entry into Russia: state security considerations, a criminal record, absence of documentation required to obtain a visa and lack of proof of non-infection with the HIV virus.)

To date, the only official statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs relating to Bishop Mazur was issued on 27 February. It refers to the ministry's receipt of appeals from Sakhalin residents troubled by the inclusion of the geographical name "Karafuto" in Bishop Mazur's title, since this relates to the period 1905-45 when the south of the island was Japanese territory. The ministry regards the bishop's use of this title as "an unfriendly act and interference in the internal affairs of Russian Federation", announces the statement, and considers explanations given to the press by the Catholic Church at parish level to be "unconvincing and insufficient".

Speaking by telephone on 23 April, a senior Vatican official told Keston that the Holy See had notified the Russian authorities in writing last week about its decision to adopt the geographical term "South Sakhalin" in place of the disputed "Karafuto". According to the official, this change was made "at the request of many individuals and the Russian government." He added, however, that the old Japanese name had been employed by the Vatican as a mere formality and had not borne any implication about the area's sovereignty: "The Vatican never enters into questions of territory."

In response to Keston's continued enquiries on 22 April, a spokesman at the public relations centre of the FSB (the former KGB) said that the FSB had "nothing to do with visas". When Keston referred to the explanation reportedly given to nuncio secretary Grysa that Bishop Mazur was on a list of people denied entry to the Russian Federation, the official replied, "We do not draw up such lists." He recommended that Keston contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since, he maintained, this was the responsible organ.

In recent days there have been several high-level condemnations of the measures taken against Bishop Mazur and requests to the Russian authorities for an explanation. On 20 April a statement issued by the Holy See's press centre described the incident as "the crudest violation" of the Russian government's international religious freedom obligations, and on 22 April Polish news agency PAP reported that President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski had declared support for the Vatican's response. Also on 22 April, Russian news agency Interfax reported that the Polish ambassador to Russia, Stefan Meller, had submitted a note of protest to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs the same day requesting grounds for Bishop Mazur's expulsion. Commenting upon Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Yakovenko's subsequent statement, Bishop Mazur was quoted by Warsaw-based Polish Radio 1 on 23 April as stating that "there should be specific details as to the nature of the charges." (END)