Russian Restrictions on Missionary Visas
Mark R. Elliott
Editor's Note: The present article is an expanded and updated excerpt from the author's "Orthodox-Protestant Relations in the Post-Soviet Era," forthcoming in Religion in Eastern Europe.
A Discrepancy Between Words and Deeds
Last Fourth of July, 2003, several American missionary families were picnicking in a Moscow park when it dawned on them that "All of us are here because we can't be somewhere else. We've all been forced, due to visa refusals, to leave the various provinces where we were ministering."(1) The previous December, in connection with Russia's observance of International Human Rights Day, President Vladimir Putin spoke at a Kremlin meeting of his human rights commission. "There is a big gap," he rightly noted,"between the constitutional guarantees and peoples' real-life opportunities to use them." And the culprit is Russia's "environment of bureaucratic lawlessness."(2) But Putin himself appears either unable or unwilling to combat such lawlessness on the part of officials whose responsibility it is to uphold the rule of law. Not only do federal authorities tolerate widespread discrimination against non-Orthodox believers, in violation of the Russian Constitution, Russian legislation, and international accords signed by Russia, but the state itself is to blame for an increasing number of denials of visas of foreign religious workers. By November 1997 about half of all foreign Catholic priests in Siberia were experiencing difficulties with visas. And more recently in fall 2002 Keston News Service reported an increasing number of foreign religious workers being denied visa renewals. Initially many missionaries avoided public protest for fear of jeopardizing the visas of coworkers, but that is beginning to change.(3)
Eighty-Four Known Visas Denied
In late December 2002 U. S. Representative Chris Smith and U.S. Senator Gordon Smith published an article in the Washington Times noting the undeniable hardship visa denials were causing the Catholic Church in Russia, 85 percent of whose priests are foreign born.(4) The rash of expulsions of foreign religious workers, they contended, "smacks of a vendetta aimed primarily at Catholic clergy." While press attention seems to have focused on Catholic expulsions, including that of Bishop Jerzy Mazur from Irkutsk, in fact, many more Protestants, and possibly more Muslims, have suffered from visas denied or revoked than have Catholics. In October 2002 Keston News Service tallied 30 denials and revocations of visas of foreign religious workers.(5) Those, plus names derived from more recent printed sources and e-mail communications to the author, indicate a current total of 84 known expulsions of foreign religious workers (1997-2003), including 54 Protestants, 15 Muslims, 7 Catholics, 3 Buddhists, 3 Mormons, and 2 Jehovah's Witnesses.(6) Keep in mind that these totals undoubtedly are incomplete because of the desire of many to avoid publicity.(7) Other difficulties emerging more frequently include the reduction of visa extensions from 12 to 3 months and instances in which one member of a husband-and-wife missionary team is denied a visa renewal.(8)
The Foreign Workers "Quota" Law
A Russian law that went into effect 1 November 2002 further complicates matters by setting quotas for the number of foreign workers in Russia's various regions. Attorney Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice notes that "It is not normal for internal affairs administrations to establish quotas for how many priests they need to invite. Under Russia's international commitments, religious organizations should arrange their activity in line with their own canonical statutes."(9) Certainly, the quota law, at the very least, portends additional bureaucratic difficulties with visa renewals.
American Difficulties Obtaining Russian Visas
Even under "normal" circumstances, Soviet and post-Soviet Russian visas were and are troublesome, expensive, and nerve-wracking to obtain. Procurement of the sometimes expensive and always time-consuming official letter of invitation for non-tourist travelers, the high cost, the limitation of multi-entry visas to 12 months, the frequent receipt of visas at the last minute, lost applications, cumbersome registration requirements upon arrival, and now a new requirement that visa applicants must submit actual passports rather than photocopies to Russian officials--none of these measures inspires confidence and they discourage all but the most determined and persistent from venturing to Russia for any purpose other than casual sightseeing.(10)
And Russian Difficulties Obtaining American Visas
But to be fair, it must be noted that the United States now places more hurdles before Russian visa applicants than vice versa. Russians face an onerous and humiliating process to obtain visas: long lines, visas issued at the last minute, and numerous and sometimes unexpected denials. The U.S. Embassy refuses 25 percent of visitor visa applications compared to fewer than five percent denials by Britain and Finland.(11) Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Yuri V. Ushakov relates that in summer 2003 a group of Russian teenagers bound for the U.S. at the invitation of a member of the U.S. Congress were told the night before their departure they would not receive visas. Political string-pulling reversed that decision, but most Russians applying for U.S. visas do not have such connections.(12) Certainly, post-9/11 security concerns and a longstanding policy of denying visas to individuals who might attempt to remain in the U.S. justify careful processing. But the cost of applying for a visa and the new August 2003 personal interview requirement make visiting the U.S. not only exceptionally expensive but out of the question for more and more Russians.
Ambassador Ushakov illustrates the predicament:
Consider the realities of life in Russia. It spans 11 time zones and yet has only four American consular posts. A resident of Sochi on the Black Sea coast would have to make a 3,000-kilometer round trip to Moscow, spend the night there and pay a fee (itself nearly a full month's average wage) simply to be interviewed--and might have to wait weeks or months to learn whether a visa will be granted. It was not so long ago that the United States was actively promoting the idea of people-to-people contacts, while the Soviet Union resisted. Now it is the other way around.(13)
The $100 application fee for a U.S. visa amounts to a significant portion of an average monthly wage in Moscow and the equivalent of a monthly wage or more for many living outside the capital. A Westerner living in Moscow wrote to the Moscow Times in late August 2003, "A Russian friend of mine was recently denied a visa for a Ph.D. program in the natural sciences at a well-known U.S. university. He paid $100 for a two-minute interview that took place in English, during which the consular officer never once looked at any of the documentation my friend produced to show he was not an immigration risk."(14) Of course, a single anecdote of bureaucratic insensitivity does not make the case, but consider the profits and understandable ill will generated by the business of visa denials. Attorney Kenneth White, managing partner of White & Associates, Moscow, notes, "According to its own numbers, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow denied 30,000 nonimmigrant visa applications in the most recent fiscal year. By charging a $100 nonrefundable visa application fee, the embassy received $3 million for applicants who did not receive visas."(15) Taking into account official American and Russian insensitivity and arbitrariness, unjustifiable visa denials by both countries may be seriously and unnecessarily undermining Russian-American relations.
Returning to the case of Western missionaries denied visa renewals, consider the following two cases. 1) Beginning in 1999, American Protestant missionaries Jeff and Susan Wollman worked with orphans in the Kostroma Region: obtaining eye glasses, providing computer instruction, and teaching life-skill classes, among other assistance. They were denied visas in July 2002, as they were told, "in the interest of ensuring national security."(16) 2) Beginning in 1992 a French Catholic monk, Brother Bruno Maziolek, served in Yaroslavl extending humanitarian assistance to needy children, former drug addicts, and the mentally ill, a ministry strongly criticized by the Orthodox archbishop in Yaroslavl. Brother Bruno's visa was revoked in December 2001 on grounds that he posed "a danger to the Russian Federation."(17)
Authorities frequently do not offer explanations for visa denials, but when they do, national security and the alleged threat of missionary espionage on behalf of foreign powers are the reasons most frequently cited.(18) The local press in Kalmykia, for example, has alleged that such missionary groups as the Salvation Army, Missionary Aviation Fellowship, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance harbor "western spies" who are hiding behind lofty charitable ideals.(19)
Sensitivity Over Siberia and Primorye
As early as January 2000 President Putin approved a national security document that clearly drew the connection between foreign espionage and foreign religions: he specifically warned of "the negative influence of foreign religious organizations and missionaries" and "the cultural-religious expansion of neighboring states into Russian territory." Putin undoubtedly was referring to Siberia and the Russian Far East (Primorye), about which he evidences extraordinary sensitivity and where Protestant churches are more numerous than Orthodox.(20) The now infamous leaked government"Draft Report on Counter- Extremist Measures," published by Gazeta in early December 2002, is enough to disturb any defender of religious freedom and civil liberties. Catholics are deemed public enemy number one, while Protestants, especially those congregated east of the Urals, are said to pose special dangers to Russia's national integrity:
Under the guise of providing humanitarian aid, many new Protestant organizations have established within various groups of the population a position of self-alienation with respect to the Russian state and national traditions, way of life, and culture that have grown up over the course of centuries. It is especially disturbing that these tendencies have been especially manifested in border regions. The most active expansion of Protestant organizations has been noted in the Far East Federal District where the total number of religious organizations has reached 800 societies. More than half of these have not undergone state registration. More than 60 percent of the religious structures active in the region are financed from South Korea and the USA.(21)
Also in 2000 a civil service professor argued that Protestant missionary activity in northeast Siberia "was part of a U.S. government plan to seize control of the whole of Russia's Far East,"(22) and a newspaper in the west Siberian city of Omsk asserted that spies traverse the region "on invitations issued by religious organizations." A seminar held for religious organizations in the Omsk region included a regional department of justice official preparing those present for closer state scrutiny of religious activities: "You should resign yourself to this and get in touch with us more often." Also in Omsk, an FSB (ex-KGB) security officer now regularly interrogates an Eastern Catholic Rite priest who concludes this is the "gradual restoration of Soviet institutions" and a"slipping back into the old routine."(23)
A 26 September 2002 meeting in Vladivostok of a regional Commission on Questions of Religious Associations voiced alarm at "the enormous number of foreign religious missionaries" in the Russian Far East, reportedly 406, including 265 South Koreans and 114 Americans.(24) In particular, South Korean Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, and others) and Mormons drew fire at the Vladivostok meeting as harmful to Russian national interests.(25) As Bishop Veniamin of Primorye and Vladivostok put it, "The main danger of all these religious groups coming from abroad is that they all are unpatriotic. Really, can Americans, Koreans, and others teach people to love our fatherland, native soil, Russia, and to be concerned for it in the way the Orthodox Church teaches, which from time immemorial has united our nation?"(26)
Suspicious Study Abroad
Even Russians who have studied religion abroad are suspect. Russia's new chauvinists see a "threat to national security" in what they contend is "a tendency to drive out loyal and law-abiding clergy and replace them with younger and more educated graduates of foreign study centers."(27) Yet Russia's fiercest enemy of Wahhabism (radical Islam), Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, studied at Egypt's Al Azhar University.(28)
On 9 December 2002 Orthodox apologist Alexander Dvorkin, one of Russia's most aggressive opponents of "foreign cults," spoke in Ekaterinburg at a conference on "Totalitarian Sects: The Threat of Religious Extremism." In the former auditorium of the regional Communist Party school, he asked rhetorically, "You know what they call us? Raw meat. A sect is a meatgrinder that needs new pieces of meat all the time in order to chew them up and spit them out."(29) Ironically, given Orthodox nationalists' fixation on suspect foreign influences, it must be noted that Dvorkin holds U.S. citizenship.
State Concern Over Protestants East of the Urals
Former Keston Institute Director Lawrence Uzzell asked this author in early January 2003 for evidence I might have detected of Russian authorities paying particular attention to Protestants east of the Urals. In response I noted:
In conclusion, Moscow's sensitivity over perceived threats to its territorial integrity, accentuated by the war in Chechnya, is manifest in the geographic distribution of revoked missionary visas to date: those serving in the Russian Far East and Siberia (21 percent of the Russian population, but 37 percent of missionary visa denials) and those serving in certain ethnic minority regions such as Tatarstan and Udmurtia (8 percent of the Russian population, but 25 percent of missionary visa denials).(33) Notwithstanding Russia's wounded pride in the wake of the dismantling of the Soviet empire and its growing chauvinism and xenophobia, the accusation that missionaries pose a threat to the country's national security lacks substance and stands shorn of any credible evidence. Finally, if no truce is called in the "visa war" currently being waged by Moscow--and Washington--it will have serious negative ramifications, not only for religious and cultural relations, but for trade and the global war against terrorism.
Mark Elliott is director of the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
Mark Elliott, "Russian Restrictions on Missionary Visas," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Fall 2003), 1-4.
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