WASHINGTON (April 24, 2002) -- An official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has expressed concern over actions taken by the government of the Russian Federation against the Catholic Church in Russia.
"These actions severely restrict the religious freedom of the Catholic Church in Russia and interfere with providing pastoral and spiritual care to Russian Catholics, most of whom are citizens of Russia," said Gerard F. Powers, Director of the USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace. "These actions certainly violate international agreements guaranteeing religious freedom to which Russia is a signatory," he stated.
Mr. Powers expressed the Catholic Bishops' concerns in April 23 letters to Ambassador Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in the State Department, and to Ambassador Yury V. Ushakov, Ambassador at the Embassy of the Russian Federation here. He also wrote to Mr. Michael Young, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in Washington, and Mr. Elliott Abrams, Special Assistant to the President at the National Security Council.
Mr. Powers cited an incident at the Moscow airport on April 19 in which the visa of Bishop Jerzy Mazur, who is responsible for the Diocese of St. Joseph in Irkutsk, was revoked. The Bishop was declared "persona non grata." He also expressed concern that the recent revocation of the visa of Fr. Stefano Caprio, an Italian priest, and demonstrations planned for April 28 against the Catholic Church will deepen religious tensions.
"The progress Russia has made in respecting religious freedom over the past decade has not only helped ease religious and societal tensions but also has led to a resurgence of religious faith, which is contributing to a more democratic Russia," Mr. Powers wrote. "Because the former communist regimes persecuted the Catholic Church, however, the Church now relies extensively on foreign priests and religious. In light of this dependence, these recent actions directly affect the ability of the Church to function."
Mr. Powers also expressed concern over recent efforts in the Duma to stifle religious freedom. "We hope that proposals to prohibit the activities of the recently created dioceses and to deny visas to Vatican officials are not enacted," he said.
In the letter to Ambassador Jones, Mr. Powers asked that President Bush raise these concerns with President Putin when they meet in May. He also requested that the State Department urge Russian authorities to allow Bishop Mazur back into Russia promptly.
He made the same requests in the letter to Ambassador Ushakov. "We hope that the government of the Russian Federation will do all it can to prevent any further interference with the pastoral activities and religious freedom of the Catholic Church in Russia," the USCCB official said.