RUSSIA: Latvian-Based Pastor is Latest Visa Victim.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 July 2002

Less than four months into its validity, Latvian-based Protestant pastor Aleksei Ledyayev's one-year multi-entry Russian visa was abruptly cancelled on 7 June by border guards as he tried to enter Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. Pastor Ledyayev told Keston News Service from the Latvian capital Riga on 10 July that more than a month later, he has been unable to discover how he ended up on Russia's entry blacklist. Pastor Ledyayev's blacklisting followed the high-profile stripping of valid visas from Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur of Irkutsk and Catholic priest Father Stefano Caprio, neither of whom has been able to find out why they had their valid visas revoked (see KNS 11 April 2002 and 22 April 2002). An official of Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, declined to discuss such visa denials with Keston, insisting that his organisation does not maintain a "blacklist".

Pastor Ledyayev, an ethnic Russian who moved from Kazakhstan to Riga at the end of the Soviet period, is senior pastor of the New Generation Church, a network of 150 churches around the world. Like hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians in Latvia he has been denied Latvian citizenship, but has permanent residency there. Pastor Ledyayev's one-year multi-entry private visa, issued by the consular department of the Russian embassy in Riga, was valid from 12 February 2002 to 12 February 2003. "For years he visited his friends and ministered in Russia with this type of visa," the church's associate pastor Vadim Privedenyuk told Keston from Riga on 10 July.

Pastor Ledyayev first encountered problems entering Russia on 14 March, when he was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport (see KNS 11 April 2002). "At passport control he was detained by officials of the Federal border police and was put in custody with neither any explanation of the causes nor the bringing of any accusation," Privedenyuk reported. He said Pastor Ledyayev was held in custody behind bars in a basement without food and water for more than eight hours and was not allowed to meet his attorney. No reasons were given for his detention. He was then deported on a flight to Vilnius, in neighbouring Lithuania. "When he got his passport back at Vilnius airport, there were no marks in his passport or visa of what had happened in Moscow."

Despite this, Pastor Ledyayev was again able to enter Russia on 31 May to minister in the New Generation Church in the Siberian town of Blagoveshchensk, returning to Riga after a few days "without any problem".

On 7 June Pastor Ledyayev was on his way with a colleague to minister at the New Generation Church in Kaliningrad. At Russian passport control on the land border with Lithuania, he was told that he was not allowed to enter Russia. "The officer had no explanation, except one: his name was on the 'blacklist' of people not welcomed by the Russian Federation." The officer stamped the word "cancelled" diagonally in red ink across the visa, adding another stamp showing the date and place. Keston has seen a copy of the cancelled visa.

Pastor Ledyayev visited the Russian embassy in Latvia to try to have the visa cancellation overturned, but with no success. "Pastor Aleksei was told that any country has the right not to permit someone to enter their country," Privedenyuk reported. Letters from pastors and leaders of the New Generation church in Russia to senior officials, including President Vladimir Putin, foreign minister Igor Ivanov and the general procurator, have gone unanswered.

An official of the consular depart of the Russian embassy in Riga, who appeared to be familiar with the case, told Keston by telephone on 15 July that any cancellation of a visa was not the responsibility of the consular service. "We give out visas, we don't annul them," declared the official, who declined to give his name, referring Keston to the Federal Border Service. He said that "of course" there was no visa blacklist. "If he had been on the blacklist how could we have given him a visa [back in February]?" Asked whether Pastor Ledyayev is now on the blacklist, the official said the pastor would have to apply himself for a new visa to find out. He then put the phone down.

Sergei Grachev, head of the press centre at the Kaliningrad regional Federal Border Service, said any decision to cancel a visa may have been taken by other agencies. "We are only the people who carry out the functions. We don't work alone," he told Keston from Kaliningrad on 16 July. "There are instructions from other agencies." After consulting the Border Service in Moscow about Ledyayev's case, he said it was not within his competency to reveal why his visa had been cancelled. He admitted, though, that in his experience such a case was relatively rare. "I have not previously come up against it."

Contacted by telephone in Moscow on 12 July and asked about the entry blacklist, an officer of the FSB press service, who did not give his name, initially told Keston that "we do not have such lists". He then added that "each country has such lists," but denied that the FSB had any role in any Russian list. Given the details of the cancellation of Pastor Ledyayev's visa, as well as the cancellation of the visas of the two Catholic clerics, Bishop Mazur and Father Caprio, the officer put the phone down.

Keston has also learned that in the early summer several U.S. citizens who had been working with religious visas with a Protestant church in a town in European Russia had their visa renewal applications turned down without explanation. Although some of the group - who preferred not to be identified as they hope the visa denial will be overturned - had invitations issued by the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, the applications were still denied. The Foreign Ministry itself turned down the application for an invitation from the others in the group. "We have not received any reason thus far as to why we were rejected," one member of the group told Keston from the United States, "but think it may be religion related." The individual noted that other foreigners invited by the same religious organisation and working in other parts of Russia had not encountered such visa denials. (END)