Thursday, March 29, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Patriarchate Goes on the Offensive

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 29 – Buoyed by the backing it believes it has from the Kremlin and Russian society, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (MP ROC) has taken a number of steps this week that threaten both interreligious and interethnic harmony and the Russian Federation’s fragile civil society.
On Wednesday, the MP ROC Synod adopted a new policy statement governing missionary activities ( which challenges the informal but nonetheless significant understanding among Russia’s so-called “traditional” faiths – Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism – that none of the four will proselytize among followers of the others.
That understanding, always offensive to those who believe in spreading their own faith and frequently tested at the margins, has been the foundation of relationships among the official hierarchies of these faiths since the 1990s. Indeed, it is almost the official creed of the Interreligious Council on which these four faiths are represented.
But in recent months, the MP ROC has shifted its position, setting up a missionary center to seek to convert the non-Orthodox ( And now, with the Synod’s actions, the Patriarchate has signaled that it intends to step up its efforts in this direction regardless of the consequences.
Not surprisingly, many non-Orthodox are appalled by what they see as Orthodoxy’s overreaching. A commentary on this shift which appeared on a Muslim website said the mission document’s call for “a second Christianization” of the country will outrage Muslims and Jews (
The anger of these groups, the sense that the MP ROC has betrayed the existing modus vivendi, will be multiplied, the commentator said, by the fact that religion and nationality in Russia are in many cases closely linked, making any threat to interreligious relations a threat to interethnic ones as well.
Yesterday, MP ROC hierarchs stepped up their four-year-long campaign to introduce religious instruction in the public schools of Russia ( And today, Deacon Andrei Kurayev, an often flamboyant Orthodox spokesman, told Interfax that Orthodox Christians are opposed to draft legislation that would limit references to the ethnicity or religious of suspects and criminals.
To the extent they hold, both these positions put the Church at odds with the public positions of the Russian government and the Kremlin, but clearly the MP ROC hierarchy feels increasingly confident in its ability to chart its own course, possibly in the knowledge that many officials agree with its approach.
In addition, two other developments this week highlight an additional disturbing feature of the MP ROC’s latest steps. On the one hand, the leadership of the Church and many believers have lined up behind the government’s prosecution of Anton (Abdalla) Stepanenko, an ethnic Russian convert to Islam.
` Both Muslims in Russia and human rights activists both there and abroad say that the charges against Stepanenko were fabricated, the result of official malfeasance including the planting of evidence and torture (see, March 28). And they have sought to attract international attention to this case.
And on the other, ROC clergy and lay members have organized protests against an exhibit of art at the Sakharov Museum that they believe is blasphemous. As they did a year ago against another exhibit at the center named for Russia’s greatest human rights activists, they have staged protests and demanded that the authorities intervene.
Under pressure from the Church and its allies in the population, prosecutors have launched an investigation but as of this date, the authorities have also provided some militia protection to the museum, with officers positioning themselves between the Orthodox demonstrators and the Sakharov Center itself, Interfax reported today.
These protests and the other actions of Orthodox clergy and ordinary believers in recent days prompted Yuri Samodurov, the head of the Sakharov Museum, to comment on three broader and extremely dangerous trends that he sees at work in Russian society today (
First, he says, it is clearly the case that “various Orthodox unions say what a definite part of the Orthodox hierarchs would like to say but which because of their positions they cannot.” Thus, extreme actions by Orthodox laymen and the authorities’ failure to counter them could help extremists within MP ROC to gain more influence.
Second, he says, the MP ROC and its allies appear to be trying to crate the opinion that “all who do not publicly recognize the right of the Russian Orthodox Church to spiritual hegemony over the people are enemies of Russians and enemies of the government.”
And third, Samodurov continues, the MP ROC’s efforts to fill “functions which eaarlier were filled by the ideological department of the CPSU Central Committee” creates a situation in which those who disagree will find it ever more difficult to operate, something that will end any chance for the rapid emergence of civil society.
Indeed, the Sakharov Museum director concludes his remarks on a note of despair: This week’s events taken as a whole suggest, he warns, that the Russian Federation is rapidly being converted “into an Orthodox Saudi Arabia” -- although he does concede -- “in a somewhat softer form.”

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