June 10, 2010

New Russian National Holiday Irks Non-Orthodox

New National Holiday Irks Non-Orthodox Faiths

08 June 2010
By Alexandra Odynova
Moscow Times

Russia will celebrate a new holiday next month under a decision backed by the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church that is stirring up decidedly unholy feelings among non-Orthodox Russians.

Christianization of Rus Day on July 28 won't be counted as a day off work, but it will be recognized on calendars as the country's ninth so-called "memorial holiday," which also includes Cosmonauts Day on April 12 and Constitution Day on Dec. 12.

The new holiday commemorates the baptism in 988 of Vladimir the Great, who accepted Christianity together with his family and the people of his state, Kievan Rus, the predecessor to the Russian Empire and whose capital was Kiev.

Now Protestant Christians and Muslims want their own holidays, too.

Konstantin Bendas, a senior official with the Russian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, said Christianization of Rus Day has created tensions between the Orthodox church and others faiths, which believe that they also deserve memorial holidays.

"The Protestants have a plan to set their holiday on Oct. 31," Bendas said, referring to the day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of a Roman Catholic church and started the Reformation.

Lawmakers in predominantly Muslim Tatarstan are calling for Russia to celebrate the Day Islam Came to Russia on May 16, the date in 922 that Islam was officially approved as a state religion in the Middle Volga region.

Such a holiday would "contribute to an interfaith dialogue and strengthen the international authority of Russia," Tatarstan lawmakers said in a statement.

A spokesman for Tatarstan's parliament declined to comment on the initiative, saying it would be officially debated Wednesday.

Muslims comprise about 6 percent of the Russian population, while less than 1 percent is Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist. In contrast, 60 percent to 70 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox, although few attend church regularly.

A senior Orthodox official said his church respected the other faiths but their holidays should not be recognized nationally like Christianization of Rus Day.

"Russia is an Orthodox state, and we should not be ashamed of declaring it," said Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's department for church and society affairs.

President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law establishing the new holiday on June 1, marking the latest manifestation of vibrant ties between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church and a chance for politicians to tout improved relations with Ukraine. The legislation was earlier approved by the State Duma and the Federation Council.

In Ukraine, the date was declared a state holiday in 2008, prompting the Russian Orthodox Church to seek a similar decision in Russia. The date is considered by the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches as the beginning of Christianity in the region.

Sergei Markov, deputy chairman of the State Duma's Social and Religious Organizations Committee, said the Duma backed the new holiday in recognition of warmer ties with Ukraine after the election of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

"The main reason for the holiday is a vital improvement in relations with Ukraine. It's important now to have mutual dates," Markov told The Moscow Times.

"There are other mutual holidays already, like Victory Day, Women's Day and New Year's, but the more the better," he said.

An overwhelming 422 deputies approved the holiday in the 450-seat Duma in its third and final reading on May 21.

Chaplin, the Orthodox official, said the holiday promised to build closer ties between Russia and its predominantly Orthodox neighbors, Ukraine and Belarus. "Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have the same cultural roots that define people's lives," he said.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said the church welcomed Russia's decision to celebrate the holiday as "an important event that unites brothers."

The holiday also puts Russia at the center of the Orthodox faith, an idea pushed by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, noted Roman Lunkin, director of the Religion and Law Institute.

In the end, though, ordinary Russians are unlikely to be terribly impressed with the new holiday — one of dozens that are officially recognized by the state and already crowd their calendars.

The country already celebrates eight public holidays, which offer days off work, including International Women's Day on March 8, Victory Day on May 9 and this weekend's Russia Day on June 12. In addition, there are more than 70 professional holidays, like Paratroopers Day on Aug. 2 and Police Day on Nov. 10. One of them falls on the same date as the new Christianization of Rus Day: Public Relations Day.