Russian police pledge to stem religion-motivated crimes, help Catholic priests get citizenship

MOSCOW - A top Russian police official promised the country's religious leaders Thursday that crimes motivated by religious or ethnic hatred would not be tolerated, in a meeting prompted by anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents that are raising alarm nationwide.

Such crimes must be "shut off" and the Interior Ministry will use "the whole force of the law in the fight against them," Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasiliev told the meeting, according to the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies. "No emergency steps will be taken, but criminals should not expect lenient treatment."

He said that hate crimes remain a very small percentage of overall crime in Russia, but have become more frequent in recent months.

The meeting in Moscow came hours after a shot was fired into a mosque in the Siberian city of Irkutsk during an overnight prayer service. No one was injured in the incident, and it was unclear who was to blame.

Also recently, three people have been injured while removing signs reading "Death to Jews." On Wednesday, vandals reportedly smashed gravestones in a Muslim section of a cemetery in the southern city of Volgograd, scrawling swastikas and the word "skinheads" on graves.

"The spiritual leadership also is concerned about the security of the country. Why should we be silent when from all sides totalitarian sects and religious extremism are emerging?" the leader of Russia's 20 million Muslims, Talgat Tadzhuddin, said angrily at the meeting, in comments carried on NTV television.

Also at the meeting were Russia's chief rabbi Berel Lazar, the head of the Catholic Church in Russia, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Buddhists, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Vasiliev also said Russian officials would help Catholic priests obtain Russian citizenship, but gave no details.

Two foreign Catholic priests were barred from returning to Russia earlier this year, amid mounting tensions between Catholics and the dominant Russian Orthodox Church.