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.
“Everything that is happening now goes against our secular constitution,” said human rights activist Lev Levinson. “It says no religion can be a state religion, and should guarantee the government’s non-involvement in church affairs.”
The most recent poll on the subject by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, found that in 2007, 66 percent of Russians considered themselves Orthodox, up from 44 percent in 1996. Some 23 percent said they weren’t religious, down from 43 percent in 1996.
Yet church attendance remains low. Just 8 percent of Russians go to church regularly, up from 5 percent in 1996, according to the poll. The majority, 39 percent, said they never go, but that is down from 65 percent in 1996.
The steady rise in religious belief grew under the stewardship of the popular Patriarch Alexei II, who died in February 2009. Under his more conservative successor, Patriarch Kirill, it should continue to grow.
On New Year’s Eve, Kirill assumed personal control over the church’s missionary department, with plans to expand its powers and personnel. The church is also setting its sights abroad.
At the end of the year, it opened its first seminary outside the former Soviet Union, in France. It has opened a new church in Thailand, at a beach resort popular with Russians, and plans to do the same in Germany. The patriarch will travel around Africa this year, where, the church says, Orthodoxy is the fastest growing religion. (It is not the only religion to make that claim.)
Inside Russia, the church’s wealth is growing along with its power. In the 1990s, it won a bizarre, but lucrative, contract to monopolize the trade in alcohol and cigarettes. While that is long gone, the church's wealth comes in large part from its growing property holdings.
In the latest move to solidify the church's power, Putin announced at the New Year that the state would hand over control of Moscow’s famous Novodevischy Convent, which houses a beautiful church, icons and a cemetery where many of its famous writers, poets and politicians lay buried.
Critics denounced the move, worried the church would hide and take poor care of the historical artifacts inside.
Yet criticizing or challenging the church is not a task for all.
Yury Samodurov was found guilty of inciting religious hatred in 2005, after staging an art exhibitat the Sakharov Center called “Caution: Religion!” two years earlier. The exhibit, which featured artwork with Christian symbols mixed with pop culture references, was first vandalized by six members of a religious group.
“For a long time now, the ability to publicly approach the problems of the Church with a critical view has been considered unacceptable and inappropriate," Samodurov said in a telephone interview.
He blames the state as much as the church for his travails. “The government uses the church for its own legitimization. And the church happily gives itself the possibility to be used for this goal because it increases its own political meaningfulness and political role,” he said.
“A politicized church is a rare institution that freezes the political development of society,” he warned.
A year after his conviction, Samodurov put on another controversial exhibit titled “Forbidden Art,” which also came under the Orthodox Church’s ire. He is currently on trial for inciting religious hatred again, and has since left his post as museum curator.