RUSSIA: Another Two Catholic Priests Denied Entry.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 11 September 2002

Jaroslaw Wisniewski, a Polish Catholic priest based in the south of the Pacific island of Sakhalin, was refused entry to Russia on 9 September, according to Russian Catholic newspaper "Svet Yevangeliya" (Light of the Gospel). The following day another Polish Catholic priest, Fr Edward Mackiewicz, was denied entry despite holding a valid visa, (see forthcoming KNS article). These are the third and fourth foreign Catholic clerics this year to have had valid visas annulled and been denied entry to the country. A fifth Catholic priest has been refused a visa extension (see KNS 9 August 2002).

According to "Svet Yevangeliya", Fr Wisniewski tried to fly from the Japanese city of Niigata to the Far Eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk, but was detained at Khabarovsk airport even though he held a valid residency permit. Fr Wisniewski was deported back to Japan the following day because his name was "on a list of people who are denied entry to Russia," Russian news service ITAR-TASS quoted a local Federal Border Guard Service as saying on 10 September.

Fr Wisniewski was set to leave Russia in early June for a three-month vacation and without intending to return, according to local Sakhalin news service>. The main reason given by the parish priest for his departure, according to the news service's 27 May report, was "the situation surrounding the Catholic Church on Sakhalin over the past few months - it was he who had to bear the brunt of the scandal concerning the old name of the Sakhalin prefecture, 'Karafuto'." Karafuto was the geographical name for South Sakhalin during the period 1905-45, when it was Japanese territory.

The Russian authorities were notified in writing about the Catholic Church's decision to re-name its Karafuto prefecture "South Sakhalin" during the week prior to 23 April, a senior Vatican official told Keston News Service on that date (see KNS 24 April 2002). The Holy See's decision came in the wake of a 7 February statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry which criticised the inclusion of the name "Karafuto" in the title of Irkutsk-based Catholic bishop Jerzy Mazur. This was "an unfriendly act and interference in the internal affairs of Russian Federation," according to the statement, and the ministry viewed explanations for it given to the press by a Catholic parish priest to be "unconvincing and insufficient." Bishop Mazur was denied entry to Russia on 19 April.

While it is unclear whether the ministry's statement was referring to parish priest Fr Wisniewski, Deputy Viktor Alksnis drew attention to his words in his unsuccessful 15 May appeal to the Russian Duma (parliament) to adopt a motion calling upon President Vladimir Putin to prohibit the activity of the Catholic Church's four newly-formed dioceses. Fr Wisniewski stated that there were "ongoing discussions" about doing away with the Japanese name of the prefecture, according to Alksnis. "Can you imagine, colleagues, we are talking not about the immediate abolition of the name of the Karafuto prefecture and official apologies to Russia, but merely of 'ongoing discussions'?!" In an open letter published by the website of Russia's Pravda newspaper on 17 May, Fr Wisniewski complained that, although the name of the prefecture had been changed, "the bishop has been punished - the law has had retroactive force".

Fr Wisniewski has aroused the ire of the Moscow Patriarchate in addition to the Russian authorities. A text sent by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad to Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz on 25 June included the allegation that the clergy in Bishop Mazur's jurisdiction were engaged in large-scale missionary activity in Eastern Siberia and the Far East. "In 2000 Orthodox believers in Kamchatka were shocked by provocative statements made by Fr Jaroslaw Wisniewski of Bishop Mazur's staff on local television," stated the document. "In particular, he stated that: 'It is not known whether Rus' was baptised into Orthodoxy or Catholicism.' The name of this Catholic priest is associated with the following incident of open proselytism in Kamchatka: In March 2000, the people of the Fourth Kilometre Microdistrict in Petropavlovsk appealed to Bishop Ignati of Petropavlovsk and Kamchatka. They said in their letter that two women were visiting people in that district at their homes, doing so on behalf of the Catholic Church and Fr Jaroslaw Wisniewski. They offered free Catholic books and put hand-written Catholic prayers, the prayer of St Francis in particular, into mailboxes."

In his response to Metropolitan Kirill on 10 July, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz referred only to the first accusation against Fr Wisniewski, which he described as "regrettable" if it had indeed occurred as stated.

Despite these claims, Metropolitan Kirill denied any link between the Moscow Patriarchate and the deportation in a statement published by Russian news agency Interfax on 9 September. Any suggestions that the Church pressurised the government into depriving Catholic priests of visas were "unjust attacks", he maintained.

Speaking to Keston by telephone from South Sakhalin on 11 September, Catholic parish priest Emil Dumas said that Fr Wisniewski had expected to be refused entry to Russia, having been told not to return prior to his departure. In his view, the deportation had indeed taken place due to the Catholic Church's use of the term "Karafuto". While another reason would have been found if it were not for the disputed title, he said, "we gave a gun and the bullets to shoot us with to the Russian government on that one." Foreign oil and gas companies in Sakhalin had made the same mistake, he said, but whereas they had been made to pay a heavy penalty and apologise publicly, the Catholic Church had changed the name only belatedly in his view, and "the Russian government takes this [the Karafuto issue] very seriously." In this context, said Fr Dumas, Fr Wisniewski had been "very unwise" to go on holiday to Japan and attempt to return to Russia from there.

The Vatican immediately condemned the expulsion of Fr Wisniewski. "This is such a serious act that now there is talk of a true persecution," press office director Joaquin Navarro-Valls declared in a 10 September statement. "The most worrying thing is that the Holy See has not received any official explanation regarding the motives for these expulsions. The Holy See will try to resolve the problem through diplomatic channels."

No-one was available for comment at the Russian Foreign Ministry when Keston rang on 11 September. (END)