Vienna, May 27 – Moscow this year has transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in Kaliningrad 14 church buildings that the Soviet authorities had confiscated, but six of these properties had belonged Protestant denominations before their seizure. These transfers call attention to the reality that officials are dealing with such cases in anything but a neutral way.
This week, Religiopolis.org detailed the return of church property in Kaliningrad, citing the specific government orders (e.g., www.government.ru/gov/results/10090/) and then asked “how can one explain the granting of Protestant property to Orthodox religious organizations?” (www.religiopolis.org/publications/536-peredacha-obektov-rpts-kaliningrad-2010.html).
Because Soviet forces killed or expelled almost all of the largely Protestant German population from what had been Germany’s East Prussia at the end of World War II and because most of the people Moscow subsequently moved into that non-contiguous part of the Russian Federation had an Orthodox background, many may see such actions as justified.
But such actions raise larger issues about the way in which the Russian government’s program of the restitution of church property is being conducted, issues of fairness, equity, and historical preservation far larger than the ones that the animated discussion of the possible return of icons now in museums to the Russian Orthodox Church from which they were taken.
If Russian officials are using this program to promote or reinforce the religious balance in any particular region of the country by transferring property from one denomination to another without any compensation to the church from which the property is being seized a second time, then there are real dangers for the religious rights of the citizens of the Russian Federation.
And if, as seems likely, Moscow’s actions in Kaliningrad do not spark widespread protests in the religious and human rights community, then it becomes entirely possible that the Russian powers that be will view what they have done there as a precedent for actions elsewhere that could prove both more troubling and more threatening.
For example, it is certainly conceivable that the Russian powers that be, seeking to curry favor with the Russian Orthodox Church, could transfer church property seized from the Old Believers or from independent Orthodox Groups to the Moscow Patriarchate, which in fact was not the owner in any sense before.
And it is even possible that such officials will assume that they can transfer property to the Moscow Patriarchate property that had earlier belonged to Protestant and Catholic denominations or to Muslim and Buddhist groups, actions that the Orthodox Church might welcome but that would exacerbate inter-religious and in many cases inter-ethnic feelings.