Often they can now renew their visas only for three months at atime, rather than for twelve months as in the past, Catholic Bishop Joseph Werth in Novosibirsk told Keston News Service in a long-distance telephone interview on 13 November. "About half of my priests have had difficulties" connected with their visas,he said.
The bishop said that the visa problems began about two years ago and became sharply worse at the beginning of 1997-- "just as we were being told that preparations were underway for the new law on religion." Especially burdensome, he said, is the requirement that foreign priests return all the way to their home countries -- not just to any foreign country bordering the Russian Federation-- to apply for new visas. For priests and nuns from Germany or the United States, that can mean four expensive, time-consuming trips every year. Priests from Poland and other former Soviet-bloc countries have received milder treatment, he said.
At present foreign priests are indispensable to the Roman Catholic Church in Russia because of the lack of qualified Russian-born clergy. The Catholic seminary in St Petersburg, closed generations ago by the Bolsheviks, was allowed to reopen only in 1993. Serving in Werth's territory, which stretches from the Urals to the Pacific, are eight priests from the United States alone.
Another problem, said Bishop Werth, is abrupt, arbitrary increases in the rental fees which local secular authorities require his parishes to pay for the land which their church buildings occupy. (In spite of the 1993 constitution, in practice most Russian provinces still do not have private property in land.) A year ago the rental fee for the land under the newly built Catholic cathedral in Novosibirsk was about 3 million rubles, he said, but recently it was raised to 50 million rubles (about 8,600 dollars or 5,300 pounds sterling). Keston asked whether the authorities have taken into consideration the fact that the Catholics used to own their own church in Novosibirsk before it was confiscated and demolished by the Soviet regime. Werth replied that the local administration refuses to recognize formally that the site used by the Catholics today is compensation for the one seized from them decades ago.
Roman Catholic priests west of the Urals are having fewer difficulties than those under Bishop Werth, according to the Catholic chancellor for the European part of Russia. Father Victor Bartsevich told Keston on November 14 that the officials in the city of Moscow seem to be following a policy which is the reverse of that in Siberia: they are granting only three-month visas to priests from Poland, but full-year visas to priests of other nationalities. In European Russian cities other than Moscow, he said, Catholic priests are not having visa problems.