Vienna, June 12 – The Russian Orthodox Church, by exploiting its links with Russian security agencies and the United Russia Party, is working to monopolize Russia’s public space not only by putting its own representatives in key positions but also by blocking efforts of other religious groups to engage in public service activities.
In some cases, the Patriarchate and its allies are making a genuinely positive contribution. Last week, for example, churchmen and officials celebrated that the Church has opened 1,000 facilities in the country’s 1052 penal institutions, something no other faith could match (http://www.blagovest-info.ru/iindex.php?ss=3&id=14016&print=1).
Orthodox efforts there are especially welcome: There are now more than 800,000 prisoners in Russia, a number that is going up by 6,000 a month. Half are ill, and because conditions in these facilities are so bad, mortality among those incarcerated rose 12 percent over the past year alone (http://www.pobed.ru/content/view/5952/131/).
Indeed, Yuriy Kalinin, the head of the Federal Penal System, said “we cannot cope” with the problems of society in general and prisoners in particular “without the help of the Church. He added that he would back giving state salaries to priests working in the country’s penal institutions (http://www.pobeda.ru/content/view/5960/131/).
But in other cases, the Church’s intervention is far less benign and appears more concerned about defending either the interests of the Patriarchal hierarchy or the interests of the state than in carrying out its responsibilities as a religious organization responsible not only for saving souls but helping people in difficulty.
One example of this involves the Church’s effort to close down a series of institutions helping drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless not because these are ineffective but because in almost all cases, they are run by “non-traditional” Protestant groups that, some Orthodox feel, will lead Russians away from the true Orthodox faith.
In a commentary posted on the Portal-Credo.ru website last week, Roman Lunkin documents a series of cases in which the Church has shown itself more concerned with maintaining its unchallenged position and working with the authorities than carrying out its Christian mission (http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=comment&id=1230).
In Lunkin’s view, the Church’s actions in this regard are especially unfortunate because they are motivated by religion but by politics: “For activists of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, for xenophobically inclined priests, ‘Orthodox” bureaucrats and politicians [another] motivation is important.”
All of these people are convinced that they “are ‘saving the state,’ that is their comfortably corrupt system from believers in other faiths.” Only the Orthodox Church and its supporters in the political system and society should be allowed “’to save’ this country, that is, again, this system.”
“Thousands of drug addicts, homeless people, alcoholics and unsupervised children, living in abject poverty, belong to Orthodox culture. They are [in the view of the Church] ‘Orthodox by birth.’ The Russian Orthodox Church will pray about them. Why then should the Protestants want to change their lives or push off their deaths?”
On a somewhat less fundamental note, one Moscow commentator reported last week that the Orthodox Church, working with United Russia and the security agencies, had succeeded in preventing the Baptists from organizing a Christian song festival in the Urals (http://www.razgovor.org/news/news128/).
The local government gave permission for the Baptist function but then reversed themselves because of pressure from the Church and the organs. As a result, local officials sent in the militia who were told to break up any actions by “’the incorrect Christians.’”
It is not surprising that this happened, the Moscow commentator continued. After all, the FSB director recently said that “it is necessary to struggle with competition on the religious marketplace and to support the domestic product by suppressing the foreign one.”
That is the way “the wind is blowing” in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party has fallen in line. Its Urals office also insisted that the authorities there block the Baptist-organized song festival.
As the Razgovor.org writer put it, a program of “forced Orthodoxization has begun in the country. And things have gone so far that one cannot know in advance whether under the cassock of a priest are the epaulettes of a KGB officer – or under the leader jacket of a KGB officer, the cassock of a priest.”
Numerous human rights activists have complained about this trend, but in general, both the Church and the Russian government have ignored what these groups have had to say. Now, however, the Church faces two new challenges that it may find it more difficult to dismiss and whose consequences are far from clear.
On the one hand, Orthodox laymen are becoming ever more organized and could pass out from under the control of the Church, possibly acting for the Patriarchate by allowing it plausible deniability or possibly acting in ways beyond the intentions or control of the hierarchy.
Last week, Sedmitza.ru reported, a group of Orthodox laymen organized an umbrella group to coordinate the efforts of those who want to introduce “Foundations of Orthodox Culture” into the schools and to prevent alternative faiths from having equal time (http://sedmitza.ru, June 5).
In a declaration following this organizational meeting, the new “staff” warned that “the children and youth of our country by the efforts of the enemies of Christianity and those who do not wish Russia well can be blocked from obtaining the knowledge of [our] great spiritual culture.”
And the leaders of this new group added, in words that some in the Patriarchate and many in the Russian government may find worrisome, that “our state is again moving toward times of militant godlessness.”
More serious -- at least from the view of the Church -- is the resurfacing of Bishop Diomid of Anadyr and Chukotka. As he did at the end of January, Diomid has issued a new appeal and open letter to the Patriarchate calling for the convention of a new Church council to overcome the divisions between the hierarchy and the laiety.
Diomid’s appeal and letter were published in Friday’s edition of the Moscow newspaper “Segodnya” (http://segodnia.ru/index.php?pgid=2&partid=41&newsid=4079). And the coming weeks will show whether the writings of this unrepetent bishop will shake up the Church as did his earlier missive.
(For a survey of Diomid’s impact on the Orthodox Church and the Russian government earlier this year and assessments of why, unpunished and unbowed, he may have an even greater one now, see the collection of articles at http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=topic&id=499).