Russian Visa System Leaves Priests Scrambling

Changes to Regulations Force Ministers Away From Faithful

MOSCOW, APRIL 29, 2008 ( Changes implemented to Russia’s visa system in October have caused problems for the nation’s religious workers.

A decree mandating that foreign citizens with either business or humanitarian visas can only spend half their time abroad in Russia has forced priests and other pastoral workers to spend more time away from their faithful, according to a report from Forum 18 News.

Father Igor Kovalevsky, secretary of the Russian bishops’ conference, said the change to the visa system is not the root of the problem. The real issue is getting temporary residency or work permits.

Ninety percent of Russia’s Catholic clergy are foreign-born. And the process to get them a residency or work permit takes six months, he said.

The new regulations correspond with those in the European Union, Andrei Sebentsov, vice chairman of the government’s Commission for Issues Concerning Religious Associations, stressed to Forum 18.

As humanitarian visas are now no longer suitable for prolonged religious work, he explained, work visas are the main alternative, for which work permits are required.

“Our priests are really, really suffering from this,” one Russian Catholic told Forum 18. He mentioned one priest, limited to 180 days a year with his parish in the region of Moscow, making a grueling 24-hour commute from his native Poland to lead weekend Masses.

Others are spending extended periods outside Russia as their 180 days are already up, he lamented. And with fewer priests to go around, there are no weekday services in some towns.

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