Thursday, December 2, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Restitution of Religious Property Seen Transforming Russian Orthodox Church and Russia More Generally

Paul Goble

Staunton, December 2 – The restitution to the Russian Orthodox Church of property seized in Soviet times, a measure that President Dmitry Medvedev has just signed into law, is likely to transform the church itself and make it a model for other groups in Russia’s emerging civil society, according to a leading Moscow authority on religious affairs.
In an article in “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Roman Lunkin, the director of the Moscow Institute of Religion and Law, argues that the restitution of property seized by the Bolsheviks will subordinate the church to legal norms and force the hierarchy to take a more active role in public discussions (
On the one hand, he argues, such developments will lead to the democratization of the church, “regardless of what its leaders may want” and thus promote the transformation of an institution which has “not recommended itself as a defender of democracy” and whose leadership has often been openly opposed to “the values of democratic society.”
And on the other, Lunkin suggests, such changes in the church, which as the result of the restitution of property will be the largest property owner among the institutions of civil society, will serve as a model for other parts of civil society and thus help to promote more pressure by them for the establishment of democratic norms in the Russian Federation.
According to the specialist on religious law, “the arguments around the law on church restitution … illustrate the completely new situation in which the Russian Orthodox Church finds itself,” a situation “when it was drawn into a discussion of its own role in society” coupled with demands that its rights be recognized and enshrined in law.
The new law, Lunkin continues, has negative as well as positive ones, all of which “put the Church in the center of social life” and many of which have been largely ignored both by those who support the idea of the return of property to the Church and other religious organizations and those who oppose any such undertaking.
First of all, the analyst says, “the law strengthens the largest civic institution in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church,” adding to its position as “an enormous corporation, independent of state power with its own property and naturally with its own interests.” Indeed, “for the first time in history, the ROC has received the possibility to be strong because of its independence.”
Second, “the law precisely describes the relations between the state and religious organizations [like the ROC] in the property sphere.” Moreover, these definitions were worked out over many years not unilaterally by the state but rather as a result of intensive lobbying by the church hierarchy and its supporters.
In short, the ROC was able to promote its interests and rights, and with the adoption of the law, it “will be able to defend its rights,” something that will make it “an example for all citizens of Russia” not only of what public activism and lobbying can achieve but also of the benefits they may be able to get by engaging in similar actions.
And third, even though few are talking about this possibility yet, “one can with a great degree of probability predict,” Lunkin suggests, “that the law will promote” changes in the church itself to allow it to play the role of “an active participant in the civic and social life” of all Russians.
Because of its role as the owner of vast amounts of property, Lunkin says, “th eChkurch whether it wants to or not will have to enter into dialogue with various social forces especially if one takes into account that Patriarch Kirill has declared social-missionary tasks” to be among the ROC’s most important priorities.
With its new possessions, he says, the Church will be forced at all levels “to more seriously think about how to support itself, how to attract parishioners and not only to life on the basis of the means of rich and not very rich sponsors.” And because much of the property being returned is of interest to others, it will have to continue a dialogue with them.
Under contemporary conditions, Lunkin continues, “churches do not survive without attracting parishioners to social, cultural and educational work. The ROC cannot life in the situation of a constantly closed corporation sometimes in open conflict with society” and thus must find a basis for dialogue with society, something it has not always done.
That means that the ROC will be forced to more “open dialogue” with civil society, something the hierarchy may be reluctant to engage in but a set of actions that priests and some of the lower ranking members of the hierarchy recognize they must expand, especially given their new property holdings.
Indeed, Lunkin says, “the law on restitution will undoubtedly accelerate this process.”
All this is likely to come as a surprise to many in the human rights community, few of its members are yet ready to view the Church “objectively” but rather continue to “view it through the prism of anti-clerical ideology,” especially given the scandals arising in Kaliningrad, Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg in recent months.
“But in essence,” the religious affairs specialist says, “all these scandals are destroying the monolithic image of the ROC” and making both society as a whole and the parts of the Church aware that sometimes they can enjoy the support of the powers that be and sometimes not, often depending on what they do.
Up to now, the ROC has not been able to modernize itself, but now the restitution of property may force it to do so whether the hierarchy wants this or not. Moreover, the new provisions of the law are likely to have the effect of limiting the “telephone” arrangements that the hierarchy has had with the powers that be.
And because of that, lower ranking churchmen and even groups of parishioners will be in a better position to ensure that their rights and the rights of the Church are protected rather than standing idly by while the hierarchy arranges things for itself and its members at the expense of the church more generally.
These positive consequences of the new legislation do not mean that the law is perfect, Lunkin says. Many of its provisions are inadequately precise and will lead to more debate, something that may be useful or may be exploited in negative ways. But because the new law brings the Church into a more transparent legal space, it is on balance a step forward.

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