Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin - No. 360 - Wed 11 Jan 2006
---------------------------------------- RUSSIA: CHALLENGING TIMES FOR THE CHURCH ----------------------------------------
(By Anneta Vyssotskaia)
According to TASS newspaper, high-ranking officials of major religious confessions (Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church [ROC MP], Council of Muftis of Russia, and Chief Rabbi of Russia) thought freedom of belief in Russia improved significantly in 2005. This doubtless reflected how much government support they received. However, leaders of religious bodies outside the privileged 'traditional' religions surveyed by the popular web- portal, Portal-credo.ru, were much less enthusiastic about their religious freedom and the real spiritual state of the nation.
One of their leaders thought the notion of freedom of conscience as a basic human right had not even formed in the public mind of modern Russia. However, religion is a big factor that every political party would use in its own interests. So whilst Russia is constitutionally a secular state, it now looks very like a clerical state. The role of real faith though is most insignificant. Another leader considered the spiritual influence of Russian Orthodoxy on society has become weaker, and the ROC must realise it cannot stand alone against the growing immorality in the country. The danger Russian religious legislation posed for the religious freedom of Protestant workers concerned another leader. He mentioned how three of their churches were inexplicably denied their places of worship even though their rental agreements had not expired. Such discrimination all over Russia indicates there is an unofficial order to stop Protestant churches renting buildings for their activities. A fourth leader considered the impact of the Russian Orthodox church is mainly political whilst its spiritual influence on the nation is insignificant, with most of the people abiding in semi-paganism. He feared the danger of local government officials violating believers' rights and setting the population against non- Orthodox churches.
Politically and economically, the ROC MP continued to become more like a state church during 2005, receiving official access to most areas of Russian society, from orphanages to the army. Leading state universities now have degree courses in Russian Orthodox theology. An example of considerable government financial support was a subsidy to construct a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii. However, the internal problems of the church are also becoming more evident as parishes whose members are seeking true spiritual revival and influence are leaving the Moscow Patriarchate to form separate Orthodox groups. There are now at least nine large 'alternative' Russian Orthodox Churches and other smaller groups, many with the word 'true' in their name. Predictably, the ROC MP persecutes these groups as heretical.
The prevalence of these problems in the church have forced the ROC MP leadership to speak openly about them. Patriarch Alexei II's recent annual report also revealed other problems: greediness of some priests and neglect of their duties; church workers' ignorance of Christian doctrine; rudeness towards newcomers. He called on priests to be a Godly example to their parishioners and to put more effort into serving needy and suffering people. He even mentioned 'sectarians' (non-Orthodox believers) as worthy examples.
Knowing that speaking out is dangerous but is better than keeping silence, Russian Protestant churches were significantly more proactive in 2005. As well as staging protest pickets and meetings, they wrote open letters to the government authorities (including President Putin) about their violations of the rights of Protestant Christians. Although these actions do not cause great changes and do result in more threats, they affect people's thinking and also force the government to make some response. Unfortunately, some Protestant churches do not support such action because they fear greater oppression will result.
A positive outcome of such open protest can be reported in the case of a Pentecostal church in Izhevsk where police most offensively seized 70 believers and took 46 of them in for interrogation. After Protestant leaders made this case widely known, it came to the attention of members of the US Congress. As a result, Izhevsk authorities received an official letter asking them to investigate this violation of human rights and to properly punish the police. Although the punishment was very minimal this was still a big achievement as previously nobody would be punished.
The trend of the Protestant churches working in unity for evangelism, social work and defence of their rights continues to grow, regardless of differences in theology and traditions. This is due to a large influx of new believers with a more contemporary outlook, including well-educated people and highly qualified professionals, joining the older Protestant churches. At the same time the newer Protestant churches, which were often characterised by a youthful extremism and intolerance of the older churches, have gradually gained experience and wisdom, respect and patience.
Conclusion: The year 2005 has seen Russian government authorities continue the policy of supporting the chosen 'traditional' group of religious confessions while gradually marginalising the others. This subtle religious discrimination can be expected to worsen. Even supposing the government changes its outlook and includes in the chosen circle some other 'traditional' groups like Baptists, Lutherans and even Catholics, there will still be others like Pentecostals, Charismatics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Old- ritualists (Staroobryadtsy) and alternative Orthodox believers who will be increasingly liable to discrimination and persecution.
In November it emerged the Ministry of Justice had drafted a law that would undermine the 'non-traditional' religious groups. However, following reaction to reports in the mass media, the Ministry said it was only a working document.
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR:
* growing spiritual revival in the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, that all its members including the leadership may be filled with God's love and power, focusing on the Truth through the knowledge of God's word.
* the ROC MP to reconcile with other Christians in Russia, realising they are not 'sectarians' separated from the Church.
* for continuing growth in number, wisdom, love and unity amongst all Protestant churches, for establishing good relationships with local Russian Orthodox congregations, and for their growing spiritual impact in the life of the nation.
* God's protection from aggression by nationalistic and religious extremists and officials violating religious freedom, and for their discriminatory actions to be revealed and justly punished; may legislation not limit or ban missionary, evangelistic and social work.
'May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our fathers; may he never leave us nor forsake us. May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep the commands, decrees and regulations he gave our fathers.' 1 Kings 8:57,58
We usually provide a summary to use in bulletins unable to run the whole RLP. That was not practicable due to the scope of this RLP, but it may instead be possible to use the prayer points.
Anneta Vyssotskaia is an RLP guest writer. The article was edited for length. (Elizabeth Kendal, our regular researcher and writer, is on leave.)
Please send this RLP to others, with attribution to World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Prayer List <[email protected]> ----------------------------------------------------
The WEA Religious Liberty Commission sponsors this RL Prayer List to help individuals and groups pray specifically and regularly for religious liberty issues, and in particular to uphold the Church where it is suffering persecution.
RL Prayer is moderated by Ron Clough, a commissioner of the WEA RLC and convenor of the Australian EA RLC.
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