MOSCOW (AP) -- Every three months, the Rev. Emile Dumas goes through the same, unsettling routine -- applying to the Russian government for an extension of his entry visa.
It's by no means a formality for Dumas, an American priest who leads a small Roman Catholic parish on Russia's Far Eastern Sakhalin Island.
Five Catholic priests have had their visas revoked this year, with no warning. In September, five U.S. Protestants were refused permission to return to the central Russian city of Kostroma, where they ran a church and training courses for orphans. The government also turned down visa extensions for 30 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers midway through their two-year tour -- leaving just half the current crop at their posts in Russia.
''I take it one day at a time,'' Dumas said in a phone interview.
Religious activists, embassy officers and tour agents all confirm a spike in the number of Russian visa refusals over the past two years.
The Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom, has about 40 foreign religious workers on its list of visa denials since 1998, with most refused since 2000. Others have not publicized their cases in hopes of reversing the refusal, or for fear of endangering their Russian congregations.
The Rev. Stefano Caprio sings as he is presented with a birthday cake in the town of Vladimir, about 100 miles east of Moscow, in this Jan. 27, 2002 photo. Five Catholic priests have had their visas revoked this year, with no prior warning. The Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom, has about 40 foreign religious workers on its list of visa denials since 1998, with most refuses since 2000.
AP Photo/Maxim Marmur
The refusals are one measure of the Russian government's attempts, after a decade of openness to the West, to turn the nation inward by keeping foreigners out.
The freedom that many Russians had thirsted for after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union brought a flood of foreign cultural and religious influences that some welcomed but others perceived as crowding out Russia's own values.
''The doors seemed pretty open when we came, and our assistance seemed to be very much appreciated,'' said Jeffrey Wollman, a 53-year-old humanitarian worker from Dallas, Texas. He set up life skills and computer training classes for orphans in Kostroma in 1999, and was among the five Protestants refused re-entry to Russia in September.
''Now it looks like the door is shutting.''
Visa authorities appear sometimes to be working hand-in-hand with Russian Orthodox prelates who fear the spread of Catholicism and evangelical churches in regions where Orthodox influence was wiped out during 70 years of Communism.
In meetings with Orthodox prelates, the Federal Security Service or FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, has pronounced its mission to protect Russia's ''spiritual security.''
In other cases, broader foreign policy concerns -- such as Russia's close relationship with China -- determine whether a visa will be issued.
This past summer, for example, Russia refused to admit the Dalai Lama -- the second time it denied entrance to the spiritual leader for Russia's 1 million Buddhists, and for Tibetans who resist Chinese rule. Russia appears to have little interest in risking its burgeoning economic and political relationship with Beijing to satisfy its Buddhists' desire to personally receive the Dalai Lama's teachings.
''Buddhists have become hostages to Russia's foreign policy interests,'' said Maya Malygina, spokeswoman for the Moscow Buddhist Center.
The new ascendancy of the FSB, President Vladimir Putin's professional alma mater, and its discomfort with foreigners also play a key role. The only explanation Catholic leaders ever got for the decision to kick out Bishop Jerzy Mazur was that the ruling came from ''competent organs'' -- the code word for the FSB -- in connection with a law prohibiting the entry of people considered a threat to state security.
''We have the feeling that we are being punished for something, or they're hinting that we should behave differently,'' said Viktor Khrul, a Catholic spokesman in Moscow. ''But how, for what, why? This is not clear.''
The Catholic visa refusals followed the Vatican's establishment of formal dioceses earlier this year to replace its more informal apostolic administrations, stoking suspicions of growing foreign influence. Two of the dioceses have no legal standing in Russia -- putting priests such as Dumas on shaky ground.
The visa refusals also came in the wake of a serious foreign policy blunder by the Catholics -- using the Japanese name, Karafuto, for formerly Japanese-held land in Russia in the official title of one of the new dioceses.
''The Catholics have yet to apologize or even admit it ever happened,'' Dumas said reprovingly.
''Most of this stuff is political. It has nothing to do with Jesus,'' added the 62-year-old priest, originally from Peabody, Mass.
Russian officials have declined to discuss the visa refusals, citing international practice.
The only official comment has come from Kremlin aide Sergei Abramov, who told the Interfax news agency that ''over the past year, Russia has generally tightened passport controls and this does not apply only to Catholics or Catholic priests.''
The visa tightening could be retaliation for what most Russians regard as discriminatory travel policies implemented by the United States and Europe, which routinely refuse to admit Russians for fear they'll stay illegally.
''As a businessman and frequent visitor, I want to see tourism develop,'' said Peter Holst, the managing director of the Russian Tours travel agency in Helsinki, Finland.
''But understanding Russian psychology and politics, I understand they simply feel it's come to a point now where they must protect their own integrity.''
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