By Jonathan Luxmoore Catholic News Service
A Catholic priest was expelled from Russia without explanation, amid fears for the well-being of other clergy ministering in the country.
Father Fernando Vera, a Mexican member of Opus Dei, left Russia in mid-April after being told his residence permit was revoked.
Father Kirill Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service April 21 no reason had been given for the priest's expulsion, adding that the Catholic Church had "no reason" to believe it was connected with the conflict in Ukraine.
"All he did was relay to people what our bishops had already said -- there's no indication he went beyond that," Father Gorbunov told CNS. "The letter he received states that a person has the right to appeal, so we hope he'll reapply for a visa and have a chance to resume his service here."
"Although I haven't listened to his church homilies, I know him personally as a balanced, reasonable person, who wouldn't take radical positions. ... Most priests and religious order members here are foreigners, and their superiors abroad are growing worried about them, with some suggesting they should consider leaving Russia for their own safety."
Father Vera most recently headed Moscow's Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, one of three Catholic parishes in the capital.
Father Gorbunov told CNS a Polish priest had recently returned home from Moscow, fearing it could become harder to leave in future.
However, he added that other departures had not been "directly connected with the political situation." He said Father Vera's expulsion was believed the first since 2002, when Bishop Jerzy Mazur was arrested in Moscow while returning to Irkutsk and forcibly repatriated to Poland.
"Other cases have been explained with reference to administrative problems, such as faults on work and residence documents," the bishops' conference spokesman said.
"On each occasion, people have speculated whether the priest said or did something. But in this case we've had no explanation."
At least 15,000 people have been arrested for protesting Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Russian law was amended March 4 to impose heavy fines and up to 15 years' jail for spreading "false information" about the war.
Recent peace appeals by Pope Francis have not been published on the church's main news website, Cathmos.Ru, to comply with Russian law, which forbids the use of the words "war" and "invasion" in relation to events in Ukraine.
Catholic sources have warned that charitable projects face suspension because of Western sanctions and the cancellation of aid contracts, while many parishes are short of liturgical objects usually imported from abroad.
Russia's Catholic Church has 270 parishes spread over four nonterritorial dioceses and represents less than 1% of the country's 146 million inhabitants, according to Vatican data.
The church relies heavily on clergy from abroad. In 2021, church leaders spoke against amendments to Russia's 1997 Freedom of Conscience Law, which now requires foreign-trained clergy to obtain "recertification from a Russian religious organization."
Only one of the country's five bishops, Auxiliary Bishop Nikolai Gennadevich Dubinin of Moscow's Mother of God Archdiocese, is Russia-born.