published Sunday, April 5th, 2009

Russian Orthodox Church a growing political force

By Mansur Mirovalev

The Associated Press

MOSCOW — The glittering Christ the Savior Cathedral, a pale-white marble structure decorated with bronze statuary and swaths of gold leaf, is more than just Moscow’s grandest and most opulent place of worship.

Built in the 1990s as a replica of a church dynamited by Communists in 1931, the cathedral symbolizes the Moscow Patriarchate’s rising political influence — which may be greater today than at any time since the 17th century. It also serves as global headquarters of vast and expanding business operations that experts say are worth several billion dollars.

To tens of millions of Russian believers, the Orthodox Church is first of all a sacred institution, a pillar of the country’s 1,000-year-old identity and culture.

The death of Patriarch Alexy II in December caused an outpouring of heartfelt grief, with crowds of people lining up to view his remains. On Feb. 1, top clerics enthroned Alexy’s successor, Kirill — a towering figure with a gray-flecked beard and sonorous voice — in a cathedral filled with celebrities and political leaders. The first person to receive communion from Patriarch Kirill was President Dmitry Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana.

These events would have been unimaginable in the Soviet era, when the officially atheist Communist government treated the devout like moral lepers and criminals, defrocking and imprisoning tens of thousands of clerics of all creeds. Now the church “has become a serious power in society,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told The Associated Press in early March.

But critics claim that in the past decade the Moscow Patriarchate has sacrificed some of its spiritual authority in the pursuit of political power and commercial success. Some go as far as to compare the church to its former nemesis, the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo. Roman Lunkin of the Keston Institute, which studies religion in the former Soviet Union, says the church has “turned into an authoritarian and totalitarian structure.”

A priest who condemned the 2005 conviction and imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a leading foe of then-President Vladimir Putin, was defrocked and appointed to guard a church store in 2006. Orthodox leaders said the decision was not political, but had to do with the priest’s “discipline.”

Bishop Diomid of Chukotka, who lambasted Alexy II’s alleged subservience to the Kremlin, found himself demoted to the rank of a monk last year. The church accused Diomid’s supporters of planning to seize power in the Patriarchate.

A church council excommunicated Gleb Yakunin, a priest and former lawmaker, in 1997 after he headed a government commission that concluded that most top clerics, including Patriarch Alexy and his future successor Kirill, were KGB informers.

The church has long denied these claims as “absolutely unsubstantiated” and said top clerics had to “communicate” with the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs, which forwarded their reports to the KGB. The church also claimed Yakunin worked for U.S. intelligence.

“Unfortunately, Orthodox Christianity is antidemocratic and hails authoritarian rule,” said Yakunin, who spent years in the gulag for criticizing Soviet religious policies, during an interview in his Moscow office. Today, the 74-year-old priest leads the Apostolic Orthodox Church, a splinter group that is harassed by authorities in Russia and Belarus.

Despite the Russian constitution’s legal separation of church and state, President Boris Yeltsin and his successor Vladimir Putin forged a political alliance with the Orthodox Church — an alliance that has continued under Putin’s successor, Medvedev. Kirill is escorted around Moscow by a cavalcade of Kremlin security guards and was listed No. 6 on the government’s list of state dignitaries.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst with close Kremlin ties, says the church has become “the Kremlin’s Ministry for the Salvation of Souls.”

Church leaders have blessed Kremlin plans to eliminate some social benefits for the elderly, called on Russia’s youth to volunteer for military service in Chechnya and consecrated new warships and nuclear missiles, calling the latter “Russia’s guardian angels.” The church has also supported the Kremlin’s official ideology, which asserts that Russia’s unique historic role makes it unsuited for Western-style liberal democracy.

“The church is trying to offer a new anti-European Utopia,” prominent writer Viktor Yerofeyev complained in a December article in the French newspaper Le Monde. “Its main principle: Russian values are different from Western values.”

For the church, political loyalty has paid handsomely.

The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, is considering a bill to return to the church up to 7.41 million acres nationalized after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Both federal and local authorities have granted the church donations, tax breaks and broad immunity from government regulation of its businesses. Moscow officials, in particular, have helped the church raise money for favored causes — such as rebuilding the Christ the Savior Cathedral — by pressuring private business to contribute.

The cathedral itself reflects a dual focus on the spiritual and commercial. The structure has a dry cleaner, ATM machines, meeting halls for rent and convenient underground parking.

According to Nikolai Mitrokhin, director of a research institute that studies religions in the former Soviet Union, the church built its fortune starting in the 1990s through trade in tobacco and alcohol, through exports of oil and sturgeon, by the construction of shopping malls and hotels and by operating jewelry stores — allegedly with counterfeit bling. The church also runs book publishing concerns and organic farms.

A church spokesman, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, confirmed that the Patriarchate controlled many businesses. But Chaplin said neither the tobacco nor the oil business proved profitable, and claimed the church is no longer involved in them. He also dismissed the notion that the church’s commercial deals had undermined its spiritual mission.

“I don’t see anything detrimental if the church can invest in this kind of work,” he told AP.

The Patriarchate does not make its financial reports public, but Mitrokhin estimates the Orthodox Church’s annual income at several billion dollars.

This secrecy has led to allegations — denied by the church — that it has engaged in money laundering. “All of their financial streams flow in the dark,” said Sergei Filatov, a scholar of religion at Moscow State University.

Today, the church says nearly half of its income comes from the four-star hotel in the Danilovsky Monastery, a short walk from the Kremlin, and a factory outside the capital that produces icons and other religious items.

The church sells religious goods in places like the golden-domed Holy Trinity monasterial complex in Sergiyev Posad, 100 miles northwest of Moscow, where on a recent day pilgrims lined up in the cold to kiss the sarcophagus of St. Sergius, one of Russia’s patron saints. Many of the pilgrims stopped by some of the dozen shops peddling icons, calendars and refrigerator magnets, or pricier goods such as jewelry with images of Jesus or the saints.

Some Sergiyev Posad residents grumbled about the commercial atmosphere. “It’s like a supermarket,” said Alexander Bekker, 38, a martial arts instructor and a devout believer. “What spirituality are you talking about among these merchants?”

Other believers say that the church’s affluence has helped spread the gospel, aid the needy and restore thousands of churches and monasteries destroyed or desecrated during Communist rule.

“We still have to rebuild what Communist iconoclasts destroyed,” said Father Vitaly, 51, a priest from the central city of Vladimir. “Funds won’t fly down from the sky.”

Top church officials may live amid pomp and splendor. But many priests scrape by selling candles and souvenirs, charging modest fees for performing wedding and funeral ceremonies and blessing new houses, offices or cars.

“We trust in God, but rely on ourselves,” said Father Alexander, a smiling 37-year-old priest, who consecrated a new office in downtown Moscow for $140.

Some experts say that the Orthodox-led religious revival has made Russia’s post-Soviet political leadership a kinder, gentler group than their Communist Party predecessors.

“In Communist times, authorities completely lacked human, moral principles,” said church historian Andrei Zubov, of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. “Now that many politicians are religious, they relate their lives to moral principles.”

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