FREEDOM FOR ONE CHURCH; an article published in the New London Day on Pascha, April 27, 2008
Kremlin supports Russian Orthodox Church, but balks at allowing true religious feeling.
The fall of the Soviet Union held out the hope of a rebirth of freedom in Russia, including religious freedom. Sadly, that has not been the case.
The Kremlin repressed all genuine political dissent during the recent election that saw President Vladimir V. Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, win easily. A recent New York Times report demonstrated that so-called religious freedom is also illusory in Mr. Putin's Russia.
The Russian Constitution assures freedom of religion, but that is not what is happening.
While the Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a dramatic revival since the fall of the atheistic Soviet Union, other forms of religious expression have not done as well, particularly Protestant churches.
The move by Kremlin leaders to position the Russian Orthodox Church as a de facto official religion appears tied to the overall strategy to restore nationalistic pride. Protestant congregations are criticized as products of Western influence.
The Times reported on a Russian Orthodox priest, with strong political connections, being given television time to hatefully condemn Protestants as heretics.
”We deplore those who are led astray - those Jehovah Witnesses, Baptists, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and many other who cut Christ's robes like bandits, who are like the soldiers who crucified Christ, who ripped apart Christ's holy coat,” said the Rev. Aleksei D. Zorin.
The network frequently rebroadcast the message.
Protestant churches are required to register with the government. Many report getting no cooperation when they try. Authorities restrain attempts to open churches or provide services.
In the Belgorod region public school children receive Russian Orthodox instruction. Orthodox icons are not only permitted in school, they are encouraged.
This willingness to use the power of government to promote one faith over another should be a cautionary tale for those in this country eager to lower the divide between church and state.
Russia's economy is booming largely thanks to oil revenues. Many citizens have growing material wealth. But it is distressing that when it comes to liberty, the trends are moving in the wrong direction.
THE EDITORIAL RESPONSE..... submitted to the New London Day on Friday, May 2, 2008
On Sunday, April 27th Orthodox Christian families and individuals in greater southeastern CT joined with millions throughout the world in the celebration of Easter and yet there was no mention in The Day of this event. Instead our eyes were led to an editorial on the Opinion page entitled “Freedom for one Church.” Upon reading this editorial one must ask that on the most important holiday of Orthodox Christianity you would choose to write such an editorial.
We who live in America are blessed to live in a land of many cultures and religions; from all branches of Christianity to eastern religions to cultic religions and the list goes on. We have a choice of where and how to practice our faith. Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches rose up in this country because of the need of people to practice their faith in their own local traditions. The same can be said about Jewish synagogues, Mosques and Hindu temples.
When we leave the boundaries of this country we find that this is not the case. When one travels to lands whose histories go back far longer than ours we are automatically placed into historical and cultural foundations which are deeply engrained into the life of the people.
You began your editorial by writing about the fall of the Soviet Union and the hope of rebirth of religious freedom. You write that the Russian constitution assures freedom of religion and that the Russian Orthodox Church as a defacto official religion of the people.
Yes, the Russian state allows freedom of religion. Jewish synagogues are open, Muslim mosques are open, religious schools for training leaders operate. By far the most predominate faith in Russia is Orthodox Christianity. A student of history knows that prior to the rise of communism, in fact since the 10th century, Orthodox Christianity has been the faith of Russia, just as the faith of Israel is Judaism, the faith of Italy is Catholicism. The entire culture of the Russian people is engrained and intertwined with Russian Orthodoxy. You cannot help but travel from small towns to large cities and see the influence of Orthodox Christianity on the landscape.
When communism fell many western branches of the Christian Church felt the need to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to what they incorrectly believed to be a faithless and atheistic country. The feeling was that the landscape and people of Russia were void of faith and religion. Many Protestant Churches in this country were set on saving the souls of Russians. Unfortunately this was a very naïve stance to take. A student of history would have quickly realized that it was the faith of the Russian people that led to the fall of communism. A faith that for centuries the leaders of Communistic Russia tried to squash but could not. A faith that was passed from mother to child. A faith that in the end proved stronger than the great military and ideology of communism. Was Russia void of faith at the end of communism? Did the Russian people need to be saved? Absolutely not! The faith of Russia engrained through the centuries in Orthodoxy was alive, vibrant and ready to lead the citizens of Russia to greater glories. This is evident today in the work of the Russian Orthodox Church in all aspects of the lives of the people of Russia.
The editorial then went on to quote the Rev. Aleksei D. Zorin. This reminded me so much of what is happening here on our own American soil. Do the words of this one priest reflect Russia or the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church? Is he a spokesman for the Church? Likewise, do the words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright reflect the Black Christian community in America? Freedom of religion and freedom of the press allows one’s voice to become overwhelming to a degree that all who hear say: Ah, that is what these people believe. Can you as the editorial staff be so naïve as to believe that? Just look at the facts of the Russian Orthodox Church and you will see consistent outreach and dialogue within the Christian Church and with other faith traditions found in Russia.
The editorial continues with bringing to the forefront the Belgorod region school system. Again, the vast majority of citizens are Orthodox. Faith is an integral part of life and is reflected throughout society, including the schools. In America we have the freedom of religion but remove religion from all aspects of everyday life and confine it to just the homes of faith communities. In most countries of the world religion is an integral part of all aspects of everyday life. It is found in the workplace, in hospitals, in industry, and yes even in the schools. What we feel is a separation of Church and State is seen in many countries of the world as an integral part of everyday society. Are we to judge this upon our standards or theirs?
The last paragraph was the most troubling of all. You write that material wealth is growing in Russia but that the trends of liberty are moving in the wrong direction. Russia is not America. Our concept of freedom of religion can not be dictated upon another land. Russians are free to worship. The fact is that Russia is a land predominantly consisting of people who belong to the Russian Orthodox Church which has nourished, sustained and cultivated the soil of Russia for centuries. Perhaps a bit more of an appreciation of what Orthodoxy has provided to the soul of Russia is what is needed.
Unfortunately The Day opted to write a negative stance of Russian Orthodoxy on its holiest day. The paper missed the opportunity to witness the revitalization of faith not only in Russia but in all communist block countries and even here in our local churches whose faithful gathered to celebrate Easter. On this Easter Sunday the local Orthodox Churches joined with the over 350 million Orthodox Christians in proclaiming Christ is risen….Christos Voskerse…Cristos a Inviat…Cristo esta resuditado…Khrishti unjal…Christos Anesti!
Rev. Dean Panagos, St. Sophia’s Church
Very Rev. Basil Grisel, Holy New Martyrs Church