Monday, February 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Court Seizure of Independent Orthodox Churches Threatens Russia's Future, Activists Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 16 – A Russian court has confiscated 13 churches belonging to the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, a successor to the Soviet-era Catacomb Church, apparently at the insistence of two Russian nationalist groups who oppose the existence of any Orthodox church in Russia that is not subordinate to and controlled by the Moscow Patriarchate.
Not only does this decision violate the Russian Constitution and raise questions about the independence of Russian courts, but this “unprecedented” action in the history of Russian jurisprudence is tragically “comparable” to Communist anti-religious campaigns, Russian human rights activists said in an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev that was released last Friday. And Ludmila Alekseyeva, Lev Ponomaryev, and Father Gleb Yakunin argue passionately and convincingly that the February 5th decision by Suzdal constitutes a far greater threat to freedom of religion, civic peace and the future of Russia than many commentators had assumed when it was first handed down (
The reasons for their fears are rooted in the history of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, the way in which this case evolved, and the dilemma it poses not only for members of this church, who have long experience of conducting their religious affairs underground, but also for other believers who do not.
In Soviet times, many Orthodox faithful refused to have anything to do with the Moscow Patriarchate because they believed with good reason that the hierarchs were thoroughly penetrated and controlled by Soviet intelligence agencies like the KGB. And to keep their faith alive, they went underground and formed what came to be called the Catacomb Church.
Many members of that church, as Alekseyeva and her colleagues point out, were persecuted for this and today thousands of those who were tortured and killed by the communists are recognized as “the New Martyrs” by Russian Orthodox faithful and even by the Moscow Patriarchate.
In 1990, when conditions permitted, some surviving members of the Catacomb Church organized the Russian Orthodox Free Church and acknowledged their subordination to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, the so-called émigré church that was formed outside of Europe by churchmen who fled the Bolshevik revolution.
In 1998, this church, which numbers approximately 60 congregations in the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics, changed its name to the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church. And last year, despite the reunification of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, it refused to subordinate itself to Moscow.
Despite that complicated history, this church was able to “peacefully coexist” with all other Orthodox communities in Suzdal, including the local eparchate of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Old Believers, who also stand apart from the latter. And over the last 15 years, its members have worked hard to restore the churches that the Soviets had damaged or destroyed.
Several years ago, however, a campaign was launched by two Russian nationalist groups in Moscow – the Union of Orthodox Russians and the Union of Orthodox Church Banner Carriers – to force all Orthodox groups to accept subordination to the Moscow Patriarchate, a religious variant of Vladimir Putin’s “power vertical.”
But despite that campaign, members of the Autonomous Church have said, the court seemed to be on their side until just a few days before the decision against them was handed down. That raises the suspicion, the human rights activists say, that this decision was intended as “a gift” to newly elected Patriarch Kirill.
(But if it was a gift, it was a gift that no one in the local eparchate of the Moscow Patriarchate appears to have been involved with. Eparchate secretary Father Innokenty told “Kommersant” that his Church had never intervened in the case and while interested in Orthodox unity never seeks to force it (
The Suzdal court’s decision – and as of now, the court has not released its argument but only its order – creates a moral and legal dilemma, the rights activists say. On the one hand, these believers are law-abiding and want to live according to the law of their country. But on the other, they are committed to supporting their faith against those they see as its enemies.
Consequently, they plan to appeal not only within Russia where some experts believe they will have more success (, but also if need be to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which is likely to find for them and order the Russian government to compensate them financially.
But the members of these congregations and others who may be put at risk in the same way are not afraid to go underground again. After all, the human rights activists point out, these people “have great experience” of keeping their faith alive even “under conditions of the most severe persecution.”
If the number of such people were small, the rights activists say, the Russian government might not have much to worry about. But in fact, those Russians who are known as “alternative Orthodox” because they do not want to be subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate now constitute a large community, as last year’s struggle over Bishop Diomid showed.
And if the Russian government, especially if it appears to be acting not on the basis of law but at the insistence of radical nationalist extremists, confirms this decision or makes more like it, the number of people who will be ready to go “underground” because of their beliefs will only grow.
Some of them will try to defend their churches to the last, possibly setting the stage for violent conflicts between the faithful who thought that the days of Soviet-style repression were behind them and agents of the current regime who may find it difficult if not impossible to carry out such orders without the use of force.
That will strike at “the prestige of the Russian state,” the activists say, and undermine “hopes for the establishment of democracy and the primacy of law in our country.” To avoid that, they conclude, President Medvedev must “do everything possible” to ensure that Russia will not see again “the shedding of the blood of new martyrs for the Orthodox faith!”

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