RUSSIA: Fifth Catholic Priest Denied Entry.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 12 September 2002

On 10 September Polish Catholic priest Edward Mackiewicz was denied entry to Russia despite holding a valid visa, while border guards reportedly told him that his parish in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don had been "abolished". He is the fifth foreign Catholic priest to have been denied access to the Russian Federation this year. Foreigners working with other religious communities have also had their visas stripped from them (see separate KNS article).

According to Russian Catholic newspaper "Svet Yevangeliya" ("Light of the Gospel"), Fr Mackiewicz, who is parish priest of the Last Supper parish in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, had been trying to enter Belarus from Poland by car. After he was kept for several hours on the Polish-Belarusian border, his visa, which had been valid until December 2002, was reportedly annulled. Having been informed that he was banned from returning to Russia, Fr Mackiewicz drove back to Warsaw, according to the newspaper.

A border guard officer who refused to give his name told Fr Mackiewicz that "his parish had been abolished and his church had been closed down, and so there was no longer any need for a parish priest in Rostov," Svet Yevangeliya also reported. According to an 11 September Associated Press report, Vladimir Nesterovich of the Belarusian border guard service confirmed that Fr Mackiewicz had been denied entry to Russia via Belarus at the Peschyatka border checkpoint in Grodno region, but would not provide further details.

Speaking to Keston on 12 September, Vladimir Ashurkov of the press and information department of the Russian Foreign Ministry was unable to say why Fr Mackiewicz and Fr Wisniewski had been refused entry to Russia this week (see KNS 11 September 2002). "In cases where entry to Russia is denied," he said, "no explanations or reasons are given by any state organ. This is our practice and procedure."

Associated Press also reported that gunmen opened fire on the Catholic church in Rostov-on-Don on the morning of 7 September, leaving ten bullet holes in its windows. Speaking to Keston News Service by telephone from Rostov on 12 September, however, a parishioner at Fr Mackiewicz's church who gave his name as Grigori dismissed this incident as "foolishness" carried out by "petty hooligans," the identity of whom was known to him, as they had come into contact with the parish's Salesian centre, which works with homeless teenagers.

Grigori told Keston that Rostov's Last Supper Catholic parish was thriving and "very large," with Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Armenians - but no Russians, since, in his view, Russian Catholics "don't exist." Approximately 250 worshippers attended the two masses each Sunday, he said, while the parish's "huge building," a church measuring 30 by 25 metres and 33 metres high, is nearing completion.

Asked why his parish priest of ten years might be refused entry to Russia, Grigori was reluctant to make any comment. When he posed the same question, Keston suggested that the parish's active nature and large church building could be possible reasons, to which Grigori replied: "Our opinions do not differ on that point." Speaking to Keston by telephone from Sakhalin on 11 September, Fr Emile Dumas, a US Catholic priest from Fr Jaroslaw Wisniewski's parish, criticised what he described as a tendency by Polish Catholic clergy to "come here and build large churches", which could provoke deep-rooted anti-Polish feeling in Russia.

Besides Polish nationality (although this is not unusual in the Catholic Church in Russia), there is another connection between the two Catholic priests who were denied entry this week. Until three-and-a-half years ago, confirmed Grigori, Fr Jaroslaw Wisniewski was also a parish priest in Rostov region, but left for the Far East because "he had a calling to open a parish." In an article published by the religious affairs website of Russia Journal on 6 September, head of the Russian division of the International Religious Freedom Association (IRFA), Anatoli Krasikov, wrote that Fr Wisniewski had been barred entry to Russia at the request of the Rostov authorities back in February 1998. A few days prior to an IRFA conference in the city of Pyatigorsk in the North Caucasus to which Fr Wisniewski was invited, wrote Krasikov, Rostov regional OVIR (Visa and Foreign Citizens' Registration Department) told him to leave Russia in order to obtain an extension to his visa at its place of issue. Having received the necessary stamp in Poland, however, "on his return journey, in Brest [Belarus], this was not considered sufficient grounds for him to be given permission to travel to Pyatigorsk."

Referring to the two entry refusals in an 11 September message to Keston, a Vatican source commented that "if this strategy keeps up, they will succeed in crippling the Catholic Church in Russia." (END)