NEWS ABOUT RELIGION IN RUSSIA

Copyrighted material. For private use only.


Orthodox nationalism strong among Russian youth

TEENAGERS WANT THE EMPIRE BACK
by Anna FENKO
Kommersant - Vlast No. 13 [excerpts]

A poll conducted by the Centre of Education Sociology involved 1,600 Moscow school students of the 9th and 11th forms aged 15 and 17. The questions asked embraced all aspects of the current political and economic situation in the country from the state formation and Russia's foreign debt to religious and nationalities policy, army service and the media.

Over a half of the respondents, when asked about this country's frontiers, said they favoured the restoration of the Russian Empire within either the pre-revolutionary or the Soviet-era frontiers. . . .

Nine-formers representing different social groups still tended to give similar replies. In the 11th forms, the variation of answers received from children of poor and well-off families was enormous. The better off their families, the less teenagers believed that the domestic policy should be based on the principle of equality of all nations and nationalities and the more teenagers tended to advocate the interests of the ethnic majority. With age, the number of advocates of this principle doubles in the affluent stratum. One possible explanation is the new national ideology of the rich which influences teenagers' outlooks. . . .

The older they are, the more school students from well-off families say they are Orthodox Christians--nearly 80%, compared to less than 50% on the average. At the same time, their values are the same as those of atheists. This is seen as proving that Orthodoxy is used as a sure sign of national identity and belonging to the social elite, rather than a sign of religiousness. . . .

A typical affluent teenager is thus an Orthodox nationalist who wants to be a public servant, is displeased with the predominance of low Western cultural standards in the media, sees nothing bad about the circulation of hard currency in Russia, and hopes to get paid in dollars and travel abroad. . . .
The author of the poll, director of the Centre of Education Sociology at the Russian Academy of Education Vladimir Sobkin provides an explanation: the authority of teachers, who mostly favour the traditional Soviet values, is tapering in the senior forms, while teenagers are actively developing the sense of their social identity.

But Mr. Sobkin cannot explain why today's teenagers' mentality is progressing from the Soviet values directly to etatist-patriotic values with a nationalist-Orthodox Christian tinge. What is lacking is one component of the famous triad as suggested by Czarist education minister Uvarov: monarchy. Still, there are 'front-rankers' among Russia's senior school students: every tenth undergraduate holds that monarchy is the best form of statehood for Russia. . . .

Table 3
What is your vision of other religions? (%)
 
1. All religions have the right to exist    - 74.4
2. Don't care much about religion as such    - 11.3
3. Reject other religions                  -  9.0
4. Will struggle for my faith              -  8.9
 
Table 5
What do you think should be banned in Russia? (%)
 
1. Pro-fascist parties and organisations     - 45.4
2. Religious sects                         - 35.9
3. Nationalist parties and organisations    - 16.3
4. Sexual minorities' organisations       - 15.3
5. Pornography                           - 11.9
6. Don't care                             - 10.6
7. None of the above                    - 10.5

[translation from RIA Novosti for personal use only; from Johnson's Russia List]

(posted 15 May 2000)


Respect for religious rights linked to other rights

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY IN RUSSIA A RENEWED CONCERN

The Future for Religious Rights Under President Putin Remains Unpredictable
by Beverly Nickles [for personal use only]

MOSCOW (Compass) -- After letting Russia simmer on the back burner for the past two years, religious freedom defenders have pulled it back into the center of flame of international concern.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its first report on May 1 listing Russia, China and Sudan as their three principal countries of focus for this year. The report stated that although Russia's human rights' situation didn't compare to the other two countries, it is at a crossroads at which religious freedom could deteriorate rapidly.

The Commission selected Russia because of its influence on other nations in the region and the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy on promoting religious freedom there.

While some watchers believe the situation in Russia has stabilized, the future for religious freedom under the administration of newly-elected President Vladimir Putin remains unpredictable.

One recent decision causing concern was the amendment Putin signed in March extending the deadline for reregistration of churches and religious organizations until December 31, 2000. The amendment included language requiring the liquidation (closure by court order) of all groups that failed to meet the extended reregistration deadline.

Russia took a step backward in 1997 by enacting a federal law that replaced legislation adopted in 1990. The 1990 law provided freedom of religion and equality of all confessions and broad protections for the exercise of religious rights.

The 1997 Religion Law required that all religious groups reregister with the government by December 31, 1999. The majority of religious entities found this required deadline impossible to meet, resulting in a Ministry of Justice instruction to waive the deadline until a formal extension could be approved. About 70 percent of all religious groups failed to complete reregistration by the deadline, including many Russian Orthodox and other so-called "traditional" religious groups. No monastery succeeded in registering.

Currently, an estimated 7,000 religious groups need to register by the end of the year. Religious rights experts question whether it's physically possible to complete such a daunting task in the remaining seven months of this year, especially since resistance in some local areas against "nontraditional" religions illegally bogs down or blocks registration of minority groups.

The commission report sited [sic] State Department information that 30 of the 89 constituent regions of the Russian Federation adopted legal regulations in violation of the Russian Constitution that further restrict the activities of religious institutions. "Many of these regulations specifically target members of foreign religious groups for restrictions on their activities," the report said.

Vladimir Rykhovsky, president of the Christian Legal Center, said his office currently has about 50 cases pending. Most involve attempts to liquidate Pentecostal or Charismatic churches.

Still, Rykhovsky chooses to remain optimistic about the future and that Putin will continue to take the country along a democratic course and protect religious rights.

As in most every other area of governance, Putin gives mixed signals about the direction freedom of religion may go during his administration. Putin's profession as a practicing Russian Orthodox believer contributed to concerns early on that the Russian Orthodox Church would enjoy a favored position during his presidency.

However, the Russian Orthodox patriarch's absence on the platform during Putin's inauguration on May 7 was considered a positive sign. Patriarch Alexy II held an official role in the 1996 inauguration of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin. Days before the inauguration, Putin's office received a letter signed by 21 human rights activists asking Putin to keep the ceremony secular. During the inaugural ceremony, the patriarch stood in the front row among the other invited quests.

Anatoly Krasikov, president of the Russian chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association, takes a more pessimistic view. Krasikov sees "a 50-50 chance" for Russia to return to something resembling its Stalinist past.

If the government continues to preserve human rights overall, then religious liberty will be protected, too. It's a step of progress that religious liberty occupies an integral place in human rights in general in Russia -- more than even a year ago, Krasikov said.

"We must wait to see the first steps of the new government and then make our decision," he said.

COMPASS DIRECT Global News from the Frontlines

(posted 14 May 2000)


Orthodox service in tsar's church follows Putin's inauguration

PRIMATE OF RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH BLESSES NEW RUSSIAN PRESIDENT
from Communications Service of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow patriarchate, 10 May 2000

A thanksgiving prayer service on the occasion of the assumption of office by the new president of the Russian federation was performed on 7 May in the cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin by the most holy patriarch of Moscow and all-Rus, Alexis II.  Russian president V.V. Putin arrived at the cathedral immediately after the completion of the official inauguration ceremony.

At the end of the service the primate of the Russian Orthodox church blessed V.V. Putin and his wife with an icon of the faithful prince Saint Alexander Nevsky and addressed a hortatory sermon to the president which is reproduced below.  At the conclusion of the meeting the most holy patriarch gave to the head of state mosaic icons of the Savior and St. Nicholas for the Savior and Nicholas gates of the Moscow Kremlin.

SERMON OF PATRIARCH ALEXIS II OF MOSCOW AND ALL-RUS UPON V.V. PUTIN'S ASSUMPTION OF THE OFFICE OF PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION

7 May 2000

Esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich
Dear fellow countrymen

Russia has gotten a new head of state who received convincing support in the elections.  The majority of the nation voted for the supremacy of authority, for a thoughtful and responsible style of leadership, for legality, order and concern for people, for a strong country, reasonably open to the surrounding world. This is precisely the direction you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, have maintained in the past months while acting president of Russia.

Now you have taken upon yourself the entire burden of supreme state authority.  On this most important day I ask you, I ask you in the name of the pastors and flock of the Russian church, I ask in the name of all for whom the spiritual heritage of the country is dear:  remember the great responsibility of the ruler to the people, history, and God, in whose hands are the fates of all humanity.

The holy church calls citizens to honor state leaders and to submit to them.  "The powers that be have been established by God," writes the apostle Paul.  "The governor is God's servant for your good.  If you do evil, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is God's servant, his agent for the punishment of the evildoer" (Rm 13. 1,4). Moreover these words of holy scripture at the same time remind us:  every deed which the ruler does must correspond with the higher truth and justice and with the eternal moral law given by God.  Government service requires great sacrifice.  In the words of Moscow prelate Filaret:  "The governor must . . . stand for justice, order, and for the welfare of others and not for himself."

In the past century our nation endured countless sufferings.  Today things also are hard for it.  But in the new century and new millennium into which the country has entered under the leadership of a new president, the sons and daughters of Russia deserve a better fate.  Thus I call you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, be completely and persistently concerned for the welfare of the people, not only their material but also their spiritual welfare.  This nation hopes in you and believes in you.  Justify its trust.  I assure you that the Russian Orthodox church will steadfastly help the secular power in actions that are directed toward the rebirth of the fatherland. I permit myself to express my confidence that this is the intention of the believers of all the traditional religions and confessions.

Like never before, Russia today needs the restoration of the spiritual powers of the nation and a rebirth of its commitment to genuine moral values.  I am convinced that without this we will not be helped by money, nor industrial or military might, nor various political and economic remedies.  Vladimir Vladimirovich, help us to disclose the soul of the nation which, I believe, has up to now been striving for truth, peace, love, and beauty.

May the Lord bless you, bringing with the upcoming difficult tasks the glory of the fatherland and the welfare of the people living in it.  May he strengthen your associates and coworkers.  May he bestow upon our motherland, great Russia, harmony, prosperity, and blessing.  (tr. by PDS)

CHURCH GIVES PUTIN SPIRITUAL PROTECTION OF RUSSIAN HERO ALEXANDER NEVSKY
Agence France Presse,  8 May 2000

MOSCOW -- Alexis II, Patriarch of all the Russias, presented Vladimir Putin Sunday with an icon of Russia's national hero, Alexander Nevsky, saying he hoped the saint would be the new president's special protector.

Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin and their wives attended a special Orthodox church service for the new head of state conducted at the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Annunciation by Patriarch Alexis, Itar-Tass news agency said.

In 1242 Alexander Nevsky became a national hero when he defeated the invading Teutonic Knights.

Speaking of the presidential election, Patriarch Alexis said during the service most Russians had voted for "a responsible style of government which is concerned with the fate of the population, and is for a strong country reasonably open to the world."

(posted 10 May 2000)


Ukrainian president backs church unity

KUCHMA SEES NEED FOR SINGLE ORTHODOX CHURCH
RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report, Vol. 2, No. 17,   9 May 2000

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma told journalists on Easter Sunday (30 April) that Ukraine "desperately needs" a single Orthodox Church. Answering a question as to when Ukraine's three Orthodox Churches might become one, Kuchma said: "Taking into account that the Church is not under the state, it is difficult to name the date [of unification], but we will do everything to achieve this end."

As of 1 January 1999, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) had 7,911 parishes (nearly 72 percent of all Orthodox communities in the country), 6,568 priests, 105 monasteries, and 5,806 religious facilities. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) had 2,178 parishes, 1,743 priests, 17 monasteries, and 1,330 religious facilities. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church had 1,022 parishes, 542 priests, two monasteries, 641 religious facilities. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, which is subordinated to the Vatican, had 3,198 parishes, 2,161 priests, 73 monasteries, and 2,553 religious facilities.

Kuchma--accompanied by Premier Viktor Yushchenko, parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch, and Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko--attended Easter services at three venues: a church belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate, another belonging to the Kyiv Patriarchate, and a Uniate one.

(posted 10 May 2000)


Jehovah's Witnesses gain favorable court rulings

RUSSIAN COURTS PROTECT RIGHTS OF CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS
from Russia Public Affairs Office, Jehovah's Witnesses
9 May 2000

On May 5, the Gorno-Altaysk City Court in Siberia, Russia, ruled that Aleksandr Kalistra-tov, one of Jehovah's Witnesses, had the right to choose alternative civilian service.  He had refused military service due to his conscientious religious objection.  This is the third such decision in Russia during recent weeks.

On April 19, the Kalinin District Court of Cheboksary granted Oleg Lipatov’s appeal against the conscription commission of the Kalinin District Military Enlistment Office. On May 3, the Judi-cial Chamber for Criminal Cases in Krasnodar reversed the conviction of Aleksey Miroshnichenko.  Both men were Jehovah’s Witnesses and had requested alternative civilian service.

"The right to refuse military service and request alternative civilian service is enshrined in Article 59.3 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation," said lawyer Artur Leontyev, "The Russian Constitutional Court has twice made this clear in rulings protecting rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We hope these three recent judicial decisions will send a clear message to lower level officials to stop detaining and imprisoning young men only because they exercise their constitutional rights."  Aleksandr Kalistratov had been detained and imprisoned 21 days before he was finally heard in court.

Aleksei Nazarychev, representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses, stressed the decision to choose alternative service was an individual one. "While Jehovah’s Witnesses are well known for taking a similar position, each young man must make his own decision based on the Bible. In Nazi Germany, for example, many young men among Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to compromise their conscience and support Hitler’s war. A number were executed for their stand." Historian Christine King, rector of Staffordshire University in England, described the contest in this way: "One [the Nazis] was monstrous, powerful, and seemingly invincible.  The other [the Witnesses] was quite tiny . . . had only faith as his weapon, and nothing more. . . . Morally, the Jehovah’s Witnesses brought the mighty Gestapo to its knees."
In the near future, another Russian court will again consider the issue when the case of Erkin Shagayev, also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is heard in Ust-Kan of the Altay Republic.

(posted 10 May 2000)


Church and army in patriotic relationship

FORGING A BOND OVER CHECHNYA

Unlike the Moscow government, the Russian military and Orthodox Church openly call the Chechen war a campaign against Islam

by Frank Brown
Beliefnet, 7 May 2000

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia (RNS)--At the close of the final service on the most important day in the Orthodox Christian calendar, Father Vladimir Samoilenko stood before hundreds of parishioners dressed in their Easter best. In a broad baritone somewhere between a shout and a roar, he delivered a blessing.

 "This great Easter, we celebrate victory, the victory of life over death," declared Samoilenko, a large man in a scarlet cassock. "Just as Christ was triumphant, let our Russian army also be victorious. Let our army conquer evil with good. God bless our Russian army."

 Samoilenko then introduced a general and two colonels from the local military academy who, in turn, presented him with a medal for Outstanding Service.

 The priest, the officers, several other clergy, and a few guests then retired to the rectory, where the good feelings between Jesus' church and Russia's army were cemented with several liters of vodka and a post-Lenten feast stretching into the night.

 As formalities were dropped and the toasts grew more heartfelt, the spirit of triumphalism gave way to a sense of two embattled institutions in deep need of each other here on Russia's southern flank, just a few miles from the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya--and closer to Iran than to Moscow.

 Father Innokenty Vasetsky, 23, stood and raised his glass to the soldiers stationed in Chechnya, where after six years of fighting, military casualties number in the tens of thousands.

 "It is a cruel war; it is not a war in some foreign land but right here on our territory," said Vasetsky, a soft-spoken monk assigned two months ago to Vladikavkaz. "In our hospital, how many Tartars and other Muslims have we baptized? After fighting in Chechnya, they understand the difference between Islam and Christianity."

 Wounded soldiers are frequently evacuated from the battlefield to Vladikavkaz's 236th Military Hospital, to which Samoilenko said he frequently makes pastoral visits, performing 70 baptisms on one record day.

 A few seats down the long, linen-topped Easter banquet table sat Col. Alexander Kovalyov, 47, an instructor at the city's Northern Caucasus Red Banner Military Institute who holds five graduate degrees and writes poetry in his spare time. He also cast Russia's attempts to regain control of Chechnya in religious, patriotic terms.

 "We are fighting Islamic fascism, that's what we are doing. In the Great Patriotic War, we fought German Fascism," he said, using the Russian term for World War II. "Now we are fighting Islamic fascism."

 Such Russian leaders as newly elected President Vladimir Putin take great pains to avoid casting the Chechen conflict in religious terms, mindful of the 20 million Muslims among Russia's 146 million citizens. However, among ordinary Russians, there is widespread belief that Chechnya's estimated 4,000 to 5,000 rebel fighters belong to the puritanical, ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamic movement and are financed from rich Arab states. The truth is elusive.

 The Russian Orthodox Church here is casting itself now in much the same role it played 150 years ago, when Vladikavkaz was a fortress outpost in the Caucasus mountains, and the czar's army was battling to pacify the local Muslim peoples.

 "This has always been an outpost of both Orthodoxy and the Russian government. So the rebuilding of one means the rebuilding of another," said Samoilenko, in an interview on Orthodox Easter Day (April 30), a week after the Western church Easter.

 Since ethnic strife first erupted in the Caucasus region in the late 1980s, an estimated 50,000 ethnic Russians have left the Vladikavkaz region for friendlier cities elsewhere in Russia.

 Lev Khasiyev, 65, director of the city's House of Art and a deputy churchwarden at another Orthodox church, said for the ethnic Russians remaining, "the church is a very important factor in keeping them feeling connected to Russians elsewhere and Christians throughout the world."

 A year ago, a bomb killed at least 65 people at a crowded market here. When fighting was at its fiercest this winter, Chechnya-bound rockets and helicopter gunships flew over Vladikavkaz. To this day, kidnappings here are common in this city of 650,000, with one couple grabbed April 27 on the outskirts of town as they emerged from a taxi.

 Russian Orthodox priests, too, are targets. Over a two-month period last spring, three priests, two of them elderly, were kidnapped from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. At least two Russian Orthodox priests and a Baptist pastor have been murdered in Chechnya itself.

 When a position for a rector opened up at Vladikavkaz's Church of Elijah the Prophet, the bishop asked for volunteers. No one stepped forward, and eligible priests were preparing to draw lots when the ruling bishop asked Samoilenko to take the spot. He did and moved south with his wife and two children. Now the 33-year-old priest seems to relish his role as a beacon of hope and stability for local Christians and as a "cleansing influence" at the local military institute.

 Samoilenko is a regular guest lecturer at the Institute and takes part in cadets' induction and graduation exercises. He sees the Russian Orthodox Church as vital to restoring the military's sense of purpose, something it often loses sight of in Chechnya, according to human rights monitors.

 Human Rights Watch, for example, has documented scores of cases of Russian soldiers robbing, raping, and murdering civilians in Chechnya during sometimes drunken rampages. Russian military leaders are indignant at the accusations and point to what they call the greater evil of Chechen bandits' kidnapping business that has claimed thousands of victims.

 Samoilenko said a "Christ-loving, peacekeeping army" would not engage in such excesses.

 Among the high-ranking officers gathered at the Easter banquet, there was little doubt about the purpose of their military service. "We believe in Orthodoxy. We will die for Orthodoxy," said Kovalyov, who earns the ruble equivalent of $105 a month.

 The newfound, post-Soviet union of army and church is full of ironies.

 Both colonels at the Easter banquet are former members of the Communist Party, which had no place for believers and nearly drove the Russian Orthodox Church to extinction in the 1930s. Samoilenko's five brothers are all priests, as was his father, the victim of frequent government harassment in Soviet times. His church is one of three Orthodox churches in Vladikavkaz, which boasted 28 before the 1917 revolution ushered in 70 years of state-sponsored atheism.

 Largely because of this Soviet legacy, here on the edge of Russia the church is straining to meet the demands placed on it. Samoilenko said a three-man delegation arrived on Good Friday from the Chechen village of Assinovskaya asking for a priest for Easter. He had to refuse them.

 "We just didn't have anyone to spare," he said.

 (posted 8 May 2000)


New president's religion policy awaited

IS THIS RUSSIA'S WORST CASE RELIGIOUS SCENARIO?

As Russia awaits new President Vladimir Putin's policies on religious tolerance, the city of Krasnodar wallows in intolerance

by Frank Brown,
Beliefnet, April 7, 2000

When it comes to religious freedom in the world's largest country, this southern Russian steppe city of 1 million is one of the last places to look.

The charismatic Communist governor is the picture of intolerance. In one speech, he made 60 references to zhidy, a derogatory term for Jews. Local Protestants can't rent space to worship on Sundays and so meet in a three-room apartment using a video camera and televisions. Jehovah's Witnesses are often physically and verbally abused while preaching door-to-door, their leaders say.

Krasnodar is not, by any means, a typical Russian city. Yet in the March 26 presidential election, Krasnodar showed itself to be quite average, giving Vladimir Putin a solid 52 percent of the vote from a field of 11 candidates. Nationally, Putin won nearly 53 percent, compared with 29 percent for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The election results in Krasnodar show how Putin's nationalist politics resonate deeply among voters, who in past elections have staunchly supported Communist candidates. While it's too early to tell what Putin's policies on religious freedom will be, the current situation in Krasnodar could well resemble a worst-case scenario, said one pessimistic Russian religion expert.

"It is going to get much more difficult. There are no hopes that Putin will be more civilized than his Bolshevik predecessors," said Yakov Krotov, a Moscow church historian and author, alluding to Putin's 15-year career in the KGB. "As a former Chekhist [KGB man], Putin will be more willing to use new methods against, for example, foreign Protestants."

Under a controversial 1997 religion law designed to better control the flood of new faiths into Russia, the government has considerable latitude in regulating religious groups, especially those deemed harmful to society. This year will be a telling one, as December 31 marks the final deadline for registration under the new law.

Putin himself is a self-described believer, having been baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church as a child. In appearances with Orthodox leader Patriarch Alexy II and in remarks broadcast on Christmas Eve, Putin appeared more familiar and comfortable with his faith than other Soviet-bred politicians who have adopted Russian Orthodoxy.

Key to Putin's decisive election victory was his ability to ride the crest of Russian nationalism connected with the ongoing war against Muslim separatists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, located about 275 miles east of Krasnodar. Central to that nationalism and ethnic Russians' self-identity is the 1,000-year-old Russian Orthodox Church, the country's dominant faith and, historically, a key defense against the Roman Catholic West and the Muslim East.

These days, a post-Soviet influx of thousands of American evangelical Protestants, Scientologists, Mormons, and others--all looking to gain converts--is perceived as just as threatening to traditional Russian values. Standing in their way here are staunchly Orthodox Cossacks and the Russian Orthodox Church itself.

The sense of embattlement is especially acute in Krasnodar, which has gained an international reputation as a bastion of intolerance largely through the excesses of Cossacks accused of terrorizing ethnic minorities and through Govenor Nikolai Kondratenko's public obsession with Jews and Zionism.

Moreover, a U.S.-based human rights group is planning a large conference here this summer. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Semitic Black Hundred group is organizing a summertime recruitment drive in the area.

According to Orthodox Father Valentin Mertzev, 62, dean of 10 city parishes, the battle has been pitched for some time. In an interview in the handsome brick Cathedral Church of St. Katherine after a morning Divine Liturgy, Mertzev described the local appearance of nontraditional faiths--including Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas--as "not a healthy phenomenon. There are very many of them now, and we find this a bit offensive."

"These missionaries are impostors and cosmopolitans who are drawing people away from the motherland," said Mertzev, an engaging, portly man with a broad face topped by black eyebrows and flowing white hair. "A church prays. Those people preach. It is pure propaganda that they use."

Mertzev said his church has no intention of acting in violation of Russia's constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. But as far as he is concerned, some nontraditional faiths are not legitimate religions.

"If you are speaking about their teaching, it is worse than Communist teaching," said Mertzev, a priest since 1960. "It is entirely secular and materialistic. They wrap it up and present it as a religion, but it is not a religion."

Despite opposition from politically powerful Russian Orthodox Church leaders and hurdles erected by local government, some of the faiths to which Mertzev is opposed are growing rapidly here.

On Election Day, a clear Sunday with the temperature hovering around freezing, about 2,000--mostly young--people gathered under a huge blue-and-white-striped tent for a lively three-hour service at the Pentecostal Bethany Church. It is Krasnodar's biggest single congregation and part of Russia's largest Pentecostal association, dating from Stalin's regime.

The Russian Orthodox Church finds the region's 12,000 Jehovah's Witnesses--who have been in the Krasnodar area since at least 1965, and in Russia itself for more than a century--particularly noxious because they deny Jesus' divinity. The Jehovah's Witnesses don't have a permanent structure for worship. Instead, they use the homes of individual members, one of whom said he hosts up to 3,000 people a week at services held from morning to night throughout the week.

Throughout Russia, access to property is one way in which minority faiths are regulated informally. Krasnodar is no exception. Jonathan Simmonds, 29, a wiry Briton with the Florida-based New Tribes Mission, an evangelical group, heads a Russian-language school for some of Krasnodar's 50 foreign Protestant missionaries. Simmonds said his Krasnodar Bible Church has had to move twice, first from a music school and then from a cafe. Now believers meet in a three-room apartment with a video feed.

"There are problems, of course, finding a place that does not cause offense," said Simmonds. "It is partly connected with the fact that these people think we are a cult or something dangerous."

Still, missionary work in Krasnodar is easier than in the neighboring Muslim Adygei Republic, where Simmonds said foreign missionaries have "had their lives threatened several times" as they collected local residents to attend services in Krasnodar.

With a recent influx of non-Russian refugees from the war in Chechnya and other regional ethnic conflicts, Krasnodar's ethnic Russians are keenly aware of their own identity, one defined by Russian Orthodoxy and local Cossack traditions. Cossack military units, each of which has a Russian Orthodox Church chaplain, are made up only of believers. Some units have been empowered by Krasnodar's local government to act as a volunteer police force.

The ataman, or leader, of the area's 550,000 Cossacks, Vladimir Gromov, is also the deputy governor of the Krasnodar region. Gromov, who voted for Putin, is open in his contempt of the 1993 constitution guaranteeing religious freedom and has no tolerance for missionaries of any stripe.

"We reckon that their presence here is a violation of human rights--our human rights. We don't go to America and tell you what to do," said Gromov, a stocky man with a foot-long beard and a pedantic manner that hints at his profession as a history professor. "But all the same, your human rights activists cry out, 'Oh, the poor Catholics, the poor Jehovah's Witnesses. They aren't being made to feel comfortable.'"

Asked about the Jehovah's Witnesses' hopes of building a worship complex, Gromov said, "It is not going to happen," and had no further explanation.

Gromov is a staunch defender of the governor, Kondratenko, by far Krasnodar's best-known citizen in the West. For political analysts and human rights activists, Kondratenko's public anti-Semitism is a worrisome phenomenon. For Gromov and Mertzev, it's a logical analysis of the current situation in Russia.

"You know, he is a reasonable man. He doesn't criticize the Jews," Mertzev said, adding: "You know well who is running things. It is the Masons. It is Zionism. But Zionism is not Jewry. If you are talking about anti-Semitism, it means we despise every Jew. We don't despise them. The same is true of Kondratenko. Some people just don't want to understand him."

Georgy Gonik, a professor of agriculture and leader of Krasnodar's 800-member Progressive (as Reform Judaism is called in Russia) Jewish congregation, downplays the danger of being Jewish in Krasnodar.

"Just because the governor is a genetic anti-Semite doesn't mean Jews are being sent to prison," said Gonik, who acknowledged that Kondratenko's speech is potentially dangerous. "It is an old song of the anti-Semites: There are bad Yids and good Jews. But where is the line?"

Gonik, who voted for Putin, said the negative perception of Krasnodar is overblown, even in Moscow.

"Last fall, 10 officials from the Russian Jewish Congress in Moscow came down. They brought their own guards and hired even more here," said Gonik, estimating that guards outnumbered delegates 3 to 1. "They carried automatic weapons, wore bulletproof vests, and had helmets on. People are still laughing."

Gonik and other Jewish leaders--such as the head of the Russian Jewish Congress branch, Yury Teitelbaum--insist that what would appear to be deep-seated anti-Semitism in Russian Orthodox, Cossack, and government circles does not translate into actual abuse of the up to 15,000 Jews in the region. Gonik cautioned, however, that were the economy to go suddenly sour, things might turn ugly.

Local neo-fascists are waiting for just such an economic downturn.

"We wouldn't just get rid of all the Jews in city government, but we would also return the land taken by the Bolsheviks," said Viktor Zelinsky, a retired Interior Ministry major who heads the "several-hundred member" Krasnodar chapter of Russian National Unity, the nation's largest neo-fascist organization.

On Sundays, several dozen of Zelinsky's men, wearing black jumpsuits with red swastika-like armbands, gather on Krasnodar's main street to distribute literature and seek recruits. Occasionally, they compete for attention with the Black Hundred, a small Moscow-based ultra-Orthodox organization that was responsible for murderous anti-Jewish pogroms before the Russian Revolution.

Their leader, Alexander Shtilmark, said the group has a "big future" in Krasnodar, where he hopes to hold a recruitment drive this summer.

Also coming this summer is Leonid Stonov, a Chicago-based leader of the Union of Councils of Soviet Jews, which is helping organize a Russia-wide human rights conference in Krasnodar, precisely because of its bad reputation.

"It is as though the expression of anti-Semitism has been successfully privatized in Russia. The authorities are silent," said Stonov in a telephone interview from Chicago, adding he took little solace in a recent letter from Putin to U.S. congressmen decrying anti-Semitism. "We will see what the real answer is from Putin, not on paper but in life."

Frank Brown is a Moscow-based freelance journalist who specializes in coverage of religion issues.
 

RUSSIAN CATHOLICS UNSURE ABOUT PUTIN

The Catholic Church faces problems similar to those faced by other minority faiths in Russia.
from Catholic News Service, 7 April 2000

Catholic leaders in Russia say it is unclear what the administration of newly elected president Vladimir Putin will mean for religious minorities like the Roman Catholic Church.

"As everyone stresses, Putin is an unknown quantity. No one knows what he is thinking or will do," said Jesuit Father Stanislaw Opiela, general secretary of the Russian bishops' conference.

Putin, 47, was elected Russia's second president March 26 with more than 52 percent of the vote.

During his eight-month tenure first as prime minister, then acting president, Putin's popularity grew by leaps and bounds as the Russian army slowly battled for control of more and more territory in the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya.

The small, bloody victories in Chechnya stoked a nationalist pride among Russians still smarting from the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. The nationalist revival has included a higher profile for the 80-million-member Russian Orthodox Church, the country's dominant faith into which Putin was baptized as a child.

Of all Russia's top leaders to emerge since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Putin has been the most demonstrably Orthodox, talking publicly about his faith, attending services and speaking of the church's role in today's Russia.

Until he was named prime minister by former president Boris Yeltsin last summer, Putin was a relatively unknown figure. Putin began his career in the KGB, working 15 years as a spy. Putin's past in the dreaded Soviet security apparatus is not cause for alarm, said Soviet-born Bishop Joseph Werth, apostolic administrator of Western Siberia. "If it were 10 or 15 years ago, then it would have made a big difference,'' Werth said in an interview from his seat in Novosibirsk. "But now we hope that everything has changed." Asked which candidate most Russian Catholic believers supported, Werth said it was impossible to know. "We haven't been working here long enough that their Catholic faith will have much of an impact," said the bishop.

Until the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, only two Catholic churches served all of Russia, which church officials estimate has more than 1 million residents of Catholic background.

Today, there about 200 parishes, most of which do not have church buildings of their own. Russian Catholics are trying to get back dozens of church buildings that were seized by the Communists during the Soviet era and are now used, for the most part, as government facilities.

Aside from the war in Chechnya, political analysts also credit Putin's election victory to his frequent pledges to restore law and order. It is a promise that Caritas official Antonio Santi hopes Putin keeps.

"We can only hope that he will work according to the law, not according to (arbitrary) rules or to who has power,'' said Santi, director of Caritas for European Russia, which includes 67 charitable organizations.

"All the Catholic Church requires is that he act according to the law, for the common good," he said.

Under a 1997 religion law, Catholic organizations--like those of all faiths--are required to re-register with the Justice Ministry. In most cases, the process is cumbersome. In some cases, say those familiar with the church in Russia, the process is used by fickle, biased or uniformed bureaucrats to discriminate against minority faiths.

This year, two Catholic parishes have been denied registration on procedural grounds. The Jesuit order was also rejected, a decision it is appealing.

Ultranationalist politicians and conservative elements within the Russian Orthodox Church are calling for new, tougher legislation to further limit the activities of non-Orthodox faiths.

However, according to spokesman Viktor Malukhin, the Russian Orthodox Church's official position is that the 1997 law is adequate.

Legislatively, Lev Levinson, secretary of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights and an expert on religious freedom issues, said Russia's newly elected parliament is unlikely to take any drastic steps soon.

"With the new Duma (parliament), I don't think there will be any big changes. There are no plans to introduce legislation,'' Levinson said, referring to the body elected in December. "Religious matters generally won't be very high profile in this Duma."

(c) 2000 Catholic News Service/U.S. Catholic Conference.

(posted 8 May 2000)


Death of Jehovah's Witness exploited by Georgian politician

FAMILY SEEKS INDEPENDENT MEDICAL OPINION INTO DEATH OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESS PATIENT
Georgian Times
(82) 26 April 2000

A representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses today deplored the opportunism of politician Guram Sharadze in using a Georgian family’s personal loss to bolster his campaign to ban the religious community.  "Lia Jankanidze’s death is a terrible loss and particularly for her family," said Guram Kvaratskhelia on behalf of Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia.  "Our hearts and sympathy go out to them."  He added:  "The claim by Sharadze that she died for lack of a blood transfusion is highly questionable.  Effective medical alternatives to blood transfusion are used all the time in hospitals in Georgia, as in most countries of the world.  Assertions like Sharadze’s are often proven false when reviewed by independent medical experts, and the family is now seeking such opinion."

Lia Jankanidze died on Sunday, 16 April, almost two days after surgery at the First Clinical Hospital of Tbilisi, Georgia.  The family is now consulting with independent experts as to the alleged need for blood transfusions.  Was there timely consideration of surgical procedures that would have avoided amputation and severe blood loss?  Were all available alternatives to blood transfusion considered and appropriately used?

Sharadze has seized upon this tragedy to renew his call to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia.  On 29 February 2000, a Tbilisi court found his allegations had no merit and dismissed his lawsuit to revoke the legal registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

"Mr. Sharadze has a long history of making many assertions," said Levan Rmishvili of the Liberty Institute in Tbilisi.  "After close scrutiny, one usually finds his vitriolic attacks are based on ignorance and intolerance.  It will be revealing to see what independent experts say.  Georgian law also gives every adult the right to make his own choice as to treatment.  Are we going to ban an entire religious community because one member exercises her legal right to decide what will be done to her person?"

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not refuse medical treatment.  On the basis of their religious conscience, they request effective medical alternatives to blood transfusion.  Professor A. Vorobyov, director of Hematology Centers of the Russia’s Medical Academy, has stated: "The stand of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who agree to any medical treatment except blood transfusion, cannot be interpreted as rejection of medical help or as suicide." Professor A. Zilber, Honoured Scientist of Russia, adds: "There are dozens of bloodless treatments at the moment. . . if a doctor is familiarized with the modern concepts, he will find alternative methods."

Blood transfusions in Georgia are not without risks.  Referring to AIDS, hepatitis, and syphilis, Tengiz Tsertsvadze, Director of the Tbilisi AIDS Center, recently stated: "In Georgia, the situation is not all that simple with blood screening . . . For each 100 units of donor blood, only 65% is screened."

Related story:  Georgian church calls state to act against Jehovah's Witnesses

(posted 8 May 2000)



 

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