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The Russian Orthodox Church's growing power

As connections between Russia's state and dominant church increase, observers worry about religious freedom.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, left, shakes hands with Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill during an Orthodox Christmas Mass at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, Jan. 6, 2010. (Vladimir Rodionov/Kremlin/RIA Novosti/Reuters)

MOSCOW, Russia — Priests serving with military units, religious classes in public schools, even blessings at national hockey games — this is the face of the new Russian Orthodox Church.

Following years of steady post-communism revival, the church saw an explosive growth in its activities and state role last year. Now critics warn that the growth is coming at the expense of religious freedom in the country, with many faiths under attack.

In an annual report on religious freedom released in late January, the Moscow-based Liberty of Conscience Institute said the relationship between the church and the state had become “symbiotic,” violating the constitution and leading to widespread discrimination against religious minorities.

In the latest move, Russia’s top court in December upheld a ruling banning a regional branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The group has long faced scrutiny in Russia.

More widespread, the report warned, was discrimination against some of Russia’s larger minorities — Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. With Russian Orthodoxy, these are the country’s four recognized religions.

Last summer, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced an initiative to appoint Orthodox chaplains to all army units. The current school year is the first in which religion classes, for which students ostensibly can study religions other than Orthodoxy and choose a secular option, are offered in public schools. With Orthodoxy being the religion to which the overwhelming majority of Russians belong, critics fear other school options won’t be truly followed. The religious rights report warned that in any case the move could lead to the disintegration of Russia’s proclaimed secularity.

Lacking a state ideology, the Kremlin has had a heavy hand in pushing for the church’s prominence. Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are regularly shown on state-run television attending services. Medvedev’s wife is particularly active in Orthodox circles.

The church, a wealthy institution reveling in its newfound power following the state-mandated atheist years of the Soviet Union, asks its followers to hold not just society, but government, to its standards.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the church’s spokesman and head of its department of church-society relations, recently gave a sermon to believers from several former Soviet republics.

“We don’t have to be scared to put the following task before ourselves: If we, the majority in each of our countries — there are people here from Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova — then we have the full right that our moral principles, our vision for the present and the future are determining factors in those spheres of social life and government in which we work,” he said, according to the Interfax-Religion news agency.

In Russia, religion and ethnicity are intertwined — to call oneself Russian is also to call oneself Orthodox (russki). There is a different word to describe Jews and Muslims (rossianie), for example, even if their families have been in Russia for generations. You are not considered truly Russian unless you are Orthodox, whether a practicing believer or not.

The government-backed push to further raise the profile of the Orthodox Church only works to reinforce the growing nationalism that has engulfed the country since the Soviet Union’s fall, critics say.