MOSCOW — Jim Mulcahy was sitting with some Russian friends, munching cookies and talking about Roman mosaics, when the Russian police came and took him away, claiming he was planning to perform a same-sex marriage. Hours later, the American pastor was ordered to leave Russia.
Mulcahy’s arrest this month in the city of Samara braids together several of Russia’s most acrimonious issues: gay rights, alleged Western meddling in Russian affairs, and missionary work by religions that don’t have state approval. It attracted particular attention because the arrest was filmed by state-controlled channel NTV, whose reports often take an especially truculent, pro-Kremlin stance.
The 72-year-old Mulcahy, originally from Boston, looks back on the nervous hours in the Samara police station with stoic bemusement.
“I wasn’t afraid; I felt like this was something I had to endure,” he told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.
Mulcahy is Eastern Europe coordinator for the U.S.-based Metropolitan Community Churches denomination, which has a strong outreach to the LGBT community. The church performed the first gay marriage in the United States.
He says his denomination does not perform or advocate for same-sex marriages as part of its work in Europe, and insists he had no intention of carrying out a gay marriage in Russia.
The NTV report questioned the validity of Mulcahy’s position as a pastor and claimed that he had converted to Orthodox Christianity, which Mulcahy says is untrue. Reporters also said the pastor gave religious seminars in Russia in addition to performing unspecified ceremonies for homosexuals.
Mulcahy said that a post he made on Facebook about his trip to Russia prompted activists from the gay rights organization Avers in Samara, 760 kilometers (475 miles) southeast of Moscow, to invite him to take part in an informal question-and-answer session at their offices.
The organization is one of the LGBT groups beleaguered by Russia’s growing animosity toward sexual minorities. Although homosexuality is no longer criminalized as it was in the Soviet Union, Russia in 2013 banned the spread of “propaganda” about non-traditional sexual relations to minors. Even before the law was passed, officials routinely denied permission for gay-pride rallies, and those that did take place quickly exploded into attacks by anti-gay protesters who claimed to be following the line of the dominant Russian Orthodox Church.
Another recently passed law forbids missionaries and organizations from praying outside of churches or disseminating religious material in private homes — the law exempts the Orthodox church.
In Samara, Mulcahy said, a group of about a dozen people had just settled around a long table when four uniformed police knocked on the door. They claimed they had received a tip that Mulcahy was performing a gay marriage.
One officer took a teacup from Mulcahy’s hand and told him he had to come with them.
The officers drove Mulcahy to a police station — threatening to handcuff him if he refused to cooperate. Police interrogated Mulcahy through an interpreter, who he says spoke limited English. Mulcahy’s lawyer, who was denied entry, waited outside. Police refused to let Mulcahy — who is diabetic and has prostate cancer — return to his hotel to take his medication during the eight hours that they detained him.
The Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental organization, posted about Mulcahy’s arrest on Facebook while police questioned him. People from around Russia, including Mulcahy’s nephew in Florida, called the Samara police station demanding Mulcahy’s release.
Mulcahy was then taken to court, where a judge ruled that he violated the terms of his tourist visa by engaging in unspecified religious activity. He had to pay a $30 fine and was given five days to leave the country.
The attention motivated Avers activists to install additional locks and an alarm system in their office. They fear that incidents like these will suppress the freedom of LGBT groups in Russia.
“We’re worried because LGBT organizations are getting labeled as foreign agents or even physically attacked,” said Avers spokesperson Vera Bochkareva. “Groups like ours are in a relationship crisis with the authorities.”
From his home in Ukraine, Mulcahy has appealed the judge’s decision. He said he has made many friends among the LGBT community in Russia and wants to return to visit them again as a tourist.
“I grew up during the Cold War believing Russia was a cold, gloomy place,” Mulcahy said, “but the hospitality of the Russian people changed my opinion once I visited the country.”
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.