03/18/2009, 00.00
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Russia’s Jewish community fears for its future, foreign missions in jeopardy

Two rabbis are expelled for conducting missionary activities on a tourist visa. Medvedev claims he does not want to interfere in religious affairs. Justice Ministry announces new law to regulate foreign missionary activity.
Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Russia’s Jewish community is concerned for its future. “It is a very depressing signal for us,” said Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia. “Jews have begun to fear for the future of their community in Russia for the first time in many years.”

What concerned Lazar (pictured here with Russian President Medvedev) was the deportation of Rabbi Zvi Hershcovich of Stavropol and Rabbi Yisroel Silberstein of Primorye.

The two clergymen are US citizens in Russia on a tourist visa where they performed missionary activities without the proper residency papers for anyone entering the Russian Federation for religious purposes.

Both rabbis said that without their presence certain Jewish communities would be without guidance.

“The case is greatly complicated by the fact that the list of specialties for receiving workers' visas does not include clergy,” the Federal Jewish National and Cultural Authority said.

From 1998 to 2003, 30 religious leaders were thrown out of Russia, Jews but also Catholics and Protestants.

The issue of visas for foreign clergymen has been highly controversial. With Putin in the Kremlin and Aleksij II at the helm of the Russian Orthodox Church visa, visa renewals have been a tool in the hands of Russian authorities to rid the Russian federation of unwanted missionaries, whatever their religion.

The year 2002 was the annus horribilis when several Catholic priests were expelled on a ambiguous charge of proselytism. They included the parish priests of Vladimir (Fr Stefano Caprio), Jaroslavl' (Fr Stanislaw Krajnjak), and Rostov-on-Don (Fr Eduard Mackewicz), plus the bishop of the Siberian diocese of Saint Joseph in Irkutsk, Mgr Jerzy Mazur.

Despite claims by President Medvedev of not wanting to interfere in religious affairs, his decisions to accentuate the connection between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church and some actions by the Justice Ministry towards religion and minority Christian groups have raised fears that it might be like 2002 all over. There are fears that actions designed to buttress the legitimate primacy of Orthodoxy might restrict religious freedom for other communities of believers. 

A few days after the deportation of Zilbershtein and Hershcovich, on 12 March, the Russian Justice Ministry announced a draft bill to regulate missionary activities.

To “begin with, we shall define the term of missionary activity,” said Sergej Miluškin, head of the Non-commercial Organisations Department at the Russian Justice Ministry.

The bill shall also stipulate the conditions for missionary activity and the rules of administrative liability for unlawful missionary outreach.

The new bill will address situations like those of Zilbershtein and Hershcovich.

Foreigners who preach in Russia on a tourist visa should expect deportation for violating the immigration law and a big fine, he said.

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