Russian Orthodox Church gets increasingly political - experts

by Lyudmila Alexandrova MOSCOW, February 03. /ITAR-TASS/. The Russian Orthodox Church has become more politicized, say experts as they look back on the five years the ROC has been led by its current head, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill. Although views of Kirill’s activities in that capacity differ, nobody calls in question the significant role that the Russian Orthodox Church under his rule and he himself play in the modern Russian society.

Analysts say Kirill has carried out a considerable reform of running church affairs. One of the most significant measures was the creation in 2009 of a new deliberative assembly for preliminary discussion of issues considered by the Local Church Council and the Bishops’ Council and the process of drafting resolutions. Having assumed the patriarchal see, Kirill also initiated the fragmentation of dioceses. While the Church had 150 dioceses as of early 2009, now it comprises 273 dioceses and 46 archdioceses. Some experts believe this helped the Church become a more democratic structure, while others argue the vertical chain of command gained more strength under Kirill.

Kirill’s reformative zeal also affected education. Discussions about the feasibility of a compulsory religious discipline in the curriculum of secular schools have been underway since early 2000s, but it was only on September 1, 2012 that a comprehensive course entitled Essentials of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics become obligatory for fourth-grade pupils with the Church’s active support. Parents can now opt for one of the six modules offering instruction in the essentials of Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist or Judaist cultures, world religious cultures, or secular ethics.

Patriarch Kirill repeatedly pointed to the dire shortage of Orthodox churches in Moscow, especially in residential districts far from the historical center and proposed a program for building 200 new church complexes. The idea was given the green light by the city’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin.

Amid the recent discussion over same-sex marriages’ legalization and child adoption by homosexuals the Russian Orthodox Church proved an uncompromising safeguard of traditional Christian values, in particular, of marriage understood as a union of a man and a woman.

“We are determined to declare that marriage is the union of a man and a woman for child birth based on love and mutual understanding,” Kirill said in a recent address to the upper house of parliament. He described the traditional perception of marriage as a constant of Russian morality.

In 2012 the Church issued a circular letter describing gay marriages as a “liberal” and “phoney” idea, whose expansion the Church should resist as firmly as possible.

The increasing popularity of surrogacy came under the fire of the Church’s criticism, too. Last December the Holy Synod called for delaying the christening of children born this way until they come of age, if their parents are not ready to repent the use of this reproductive technology.

But it was the Church’s response to the so-called “punk prayer” conducted by five young women from the Pussy Riot band conducted inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012 that provoked a stormy discussion in the society. Three participants, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were sentenced to two years of imprisonment for hooliganism.

Although many believers viewed the action as blasphemy, some came out in their defense and asked Patriarch Kirill for leniency, urging him to petition for an end to the criminal case. Yet the Patriarch remained steadfast - he described the group’s escapade as a mockery of a sacred place, and some believers’ attempts to find an excuse for them, as unacceptable.

Following the Pussy Riot affair and memorial crosses sawed down on several occasions, the Russian Church brought to the fore the need to improve legislative protection of religious feelings. Accordingly, a law followed that establishes up to three years of imprisonment for public actions aimed at offending people’s religious feelings.

The Church’s stance on the Pussy Riot’s case provoked harsh criticism from some public figures and journalists, as well as dubious affairs concerning the Patriarch himself. In particular, a litigation that enforced a 20-million-ruble fine on the family of former healthcare minister Yuri Shevchenko for damage caused by renovation works in his apartment to the Patriarch’s apartment in the center of Moscow. Some media also said Kirill was wearing an incredibly expensive luxurious wristwatch.

Yet inside the Orthodox Church these attacks were perceived as an attempt to discredit the Church and Orthodox values. In April 2012 all dioceses saw crowds of thousands believers praying for “faith, profaned sanctities, the Church and its good name”.

Meanwhile, pundits say the Russian Church under Kirill acquired a more noticeable political role.

“The Church has become more politically engaged, this is obvious,” political scientist Dmitry Trenin told Echo of Moscow radio station. “Patriarch Kirill is a much more secular person than his predecessor, Alexy II. Kirill strives for the Church’s active involvement in social issues and wider influence in politics.”

Political writer Artemy Troitsky described the Patriarch as “an opaque, power-hungry person who dramatically changed the course followed by his predecessor Alexy II.”

“Alexy II was neutral. He did not quarrel with either the authorities or the opposition, nor did he take sides in secular high-up wrangles”, but Kirill, he believes, has broken this neutrality.

Other valuations, though, come from religious circles. “Five years of Kirill as a Patriarch have shown him not only as a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church but as one of the nation’s leaders,” said the Patriarch’s former press officer, now rector and archpriest Vladimir Vigilyansky.

Notably, in January Kirill ranked eighth in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily’s monthly rating of Russia’s top 100 leading politicians according to polled experts.