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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Roman Catholic Priest Banished

A Roman Catholic priest who has lived in Russia for 12 years has been placed on the Foreign Ministry's list of personae non gratae and banned from the country.

Father Stefano Caprio, an Italian national, had his visa surreptitiously removed from his passport when leaving Moscow last Friday to fly to Milan to visit relatives.

A passport control officer at Sheremetyevo Airport took Caprio's passport, gave it to the chief officer and then returned it to the unsuspecting priest with a stamp allowing him leave Russia, the Catholic news service Cathnews.com reported Monday.

When he arrived in Milan, Caprio noticed that the multi-entry Russian visa that had been glued to one of the pages in his passport was missing. He then applied to the Russian Consulate in Milan on Monday for a new visa but was denied and given no explanation for the denial.

Caprio could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Yevgeny Smirnov, a consul with the Russian Consulate in Milan, confirmed that Caprio had been denied a visa Monday.

"He received a multi-entry visa last July and applied yesterday to renew it. We checked with the list of parties for whom access to Russia is closed, his name was on it and he was denied," Smirnov said Tuesday by telephone from Milan.

Smirnov said he did not know why Caprio was blacklisted. Although consulate employees normally do not give explanations for visa denial, the usual reason is state security concern. Other reasons allowed by law include a criminal record or refusal to provide an HIV test certificate.

Smirnov said his office gets a regularly updated list of personae non gratae from the Foreign Ministry's consular service department.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow who refused to give his name said that decisions on visa denial were not made by his office but by "law enforcement agencies." He refused to elaborate on Caprio's case.

A spokesman for Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the Roman Catholic Church in European Russia, said the archbishop was still trying to get clarification from Russian officials.

"No one understands what the denial is linked with. Father Stefano has never had any problems with getting a visa before," the spokesman said.

Caprio, who graduated from the Vatican's Eastern College, has lived in Russia since 1990. He speaks perfect Russian and taught theology in Moscow at the Thomas of Aquinas College and Russian State Humanitarian University.

He initiated the restoration of a Catholic church in Vladimir in 1992 and was named the cathedral's prior in 1993. Later he also became a prior at the Resurrection Cathedral in Ivanovo. The parishes have a combined congregation of 500.

It is the first publicized case of a Catholic priest being denied a visa in post-Soviet Russia and comes amid new tension between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican. On Feb. 11, the Vatican upgraded its four apostolic administrations in Russia into full-fledged dioceses united in an ecclesiastical province under Archbishop Kondrusiewicz.

The Moscow Patriarchate responded by saying the decision was a "challenge" to Orthodoxy and accused the Vatican of trying to poach Orthodox believers.

Kondrusiewicz said the Vatican was simply restoring structures that existed in Russia before the 1917 Revolution and giving "confidence" to Russian Catholics, who hope to welcome the pope one day on Russian soil.

Kondrusiewicz said there are 600,000 Roman Catholics in Russia and 212 registered Roman Catholic congregations.

Last year, several foreigners connected with nongovernmental organizations, some linked with protecting the environment or promoting democracy, others active in Chechnya, were denied visas.