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SCHISM THREATENS ORTHODOX

MOSCOW (Reuter) - The ancient bells of the Russian Orthodox Church are pealing again. Choirs singing the sonorous chants of times gone by are calling the faithful back to God. But as believers flock back to the religion they shunned for 70 Soviet years, the priests who baptize them are quarrelling fiercely and the church is threatened with schism. "Only our enemies in the church have access to the Patriarch," complained Father Georgy Kochetkov, a priest at the heart of the battle for the faith."They surround him and they use their position to attack us without compunction".

Churchmen can scarcely build enough churches fast enough to cope with the demand for a faith to fill the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of communism. A thousand new religious communities have been formed in the past two years. Onion domes are being burnished and icons rehung in hundreds of church buildings which until recently were warehouses for the Soviet Union's many ministries, departments and directorates. The priesthood is torn between democrats, who want to make the faith more modern and accessible, and nationalists who want to preserve its ancient, uniquely Russian, glories.

Splits in the Orthodox hierarchy reflect those in Russia's turbulent political world. The church's national-patriotic wing shares many of the views of the political right including the belief that Jews and freemasons are plotting to destroy Russia. Just as political right-wingers have given their reformist foes a bruising over the last year, the religious right is cracking down hard on priests who dare to rethink their ritual. The deeply conservative Orthodox Church has always resisted change. It passed untouched through the centuries of Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation which traumatised but then rejuvenated other European churches.

Opportunities for debate and reform were further limited during the Soviet period, when the small Orthodox establishment which survived under communism stifled internal dissent so as to present a united front to a hostile outside world. As the Soviet Union teetered towards collapse in the late 1980s, its youth began to join congregations of elderly women who had been the backbone of the church for decades.

But, even in today's liberal climate, Fr Kochetkov says the church is refusing change. "Night-watchman's Orthodoxy" protects it from a threat of persecution which now no longer exists. "Now you can do everything. But the old inertia of Soviet thinking, that totalitarian pattern of oppressing everyone who's not like you, even if he's in the Church, is still there". He should know. Fr Kochetkov's insistence on preaching in modern Russian - rather than half-understood Old Church Slavonic - has got him into trouble. He also organizes discussion groups outside the church, a practice frowned upon by Orthodox leaders who say it smacks of Protestantism.

As a punishment for these transgressions, he was thrown out of his Sreteniye church in central Moscow early this year. He has moved to the scruffy Pechatniki church, over the road, which is still officially the property of the ex-Soviet navy and bears the marks of its previous incarnation as a naval museum. 2