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April 21, 2012

Russian Orthodox Church Girds For Battle

Claire Bigg
April 20, 2012

In early March, a man broke into a church in Veliky Ustyug, 700 kilometers northeast of Moscow, and hacked more than 30 icons into pieces with an ax.

Two weeks later, another church was vandalized in the southern Russian town of Nevinnomyssk. The assailant smashed icons, beat up the priest, and ended his rampage by planting a hunting knife into a cross on the altar.

The Russian Orthodox Church says the incidents are the latest in a string of attacks against the church, which clerics claim is under assault from unspecified "enemies of the faith."

In a strongly worded statement earlier this month, the church said it was the victim of a coordinated "anti-Christian" campaign and called for a nationwide Divine Liturgy on April 22 in defense of the Russian Orthodox faith.

Patriarch Kirill himself has complained of being the target of an "information attack."

The campaign, the statement claims, began in February when the all-female dissident punk-rock group Pussy Riot staged an unsanctioned anti-Kremlin performance in Moscow's largest church.

The "punk prayer" performed at Christ the Savior Cathedral, in which Pussy Riot denounced the Russian Orthodox Church's close ties to the Kremlin and called on the Virgin Mary to "drive out" President-elect Vladimir Putin, has deeply polarized Russians.

Many backed the arrest of three Pussy Riot members over the performance, which caused outrage among churchgoers. A court in Moscow this week extended the trio's pretrial detention until June 24.

"I felt sick to my stomach," Taisya, an elderly churchgoer in the village of Bystritsa in the Kirov region, told RFE/RL. "I think God will punish them very severely. And the people shouldn't forgive this either; they shouldn't."

Her church, like hundreds of others, will hold a special liturgy on April 22 in line with the patriarchate's instructions.

'Let Them Make Penance'

Nikolai Fedko, the local priest, agrees that the authors of the "punk prayer" should not get away lightly.

"I would forgive them, but maybe some kind of physical punishment is necessary," Fedko says. "Let them make penance; let them fast. If they want to clean their souls, if they want to save Russia, they won't achieve anything by shouting. Churches and monasteries are being built. Let them go and help out."

But the punks' harsh treatment has also sparked indignation, including among believers, many of whom are upset that church leaders have called for harsh sentences.

The women -- two of whom have small children -- face up to seven years in prison on charges of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred.

Some suspect the alleged campaign against the Orthodox Church was merely thought up by the patriarchate to limit the backlash over its unforgiving stance toward Pussy Riot.

Nikolai Mitrokhin, a religion expert with the Research Center for East European Studies at Germany's University of Bremen, says there is no indication that attacks against Russian Orthodox churches have intensified in recent weeks.

"The church has been feeling much too confident recently. It felt the need to have Pussy Riot prosecuted, although such a performance would have gone unnoticed 10 years ago," Mitrokhin says. "And when public opinion started strongly condemning the church for its ruthless response, the church, with its leadership's mentality, claimed it was the victim of a conspiracy and started a real PR campaign."

Deflecting Attention

Others accuse clerics of using Pussy Riot's controversial performance to deflect attention from a series of scandals that have hit the church of late.

The church has been criticized for a recent court ruling forcing a children's hospital outside Moscow to hand over half of its complex to the Russian Orthodox Church, which wants to set up a monastery there.

Then, the patriarchate was forced to apologize after being caught airbrushing a $40,000 Swiss watch from Kirill's wrist in a photograph on its website.

Perhaps the most damaging scandal, which further fueled anger at Kirill's ostentatious lifestyle, was a court ruling ordering former Health Minister Yury Shevchenko to pay a staggering 20 million rubles ($690,000) to the keeper of an elite apartment in central Moscow owned by Kirill.

The court said dust from the renovation of Shevchenko's apartment had drifted upstairs and ruined the patriarch's furniture.

'Explosive' Incident

Yakov Krotov, a priest who hosts an RFE/RL program on religion, believes it was this incident more than the others that really lies behind the church's current efforts to rally believers to its defense.

"This apartment incident proved explosive. A villa on the Canary Islands is beyond the cognitive horizon of average Russians, but any person can compare a 150-meter flat in the city center with his own 40 square meters, in which he lives with his two children, his mother-in-law, his grandfather and his great-grandmother," Krotov says.

"I think this is precisely why the patriarch got scared. This discredits him a lot more than any bank account in Switzerland."

Kirill also came under fire for calling Putin's 12-year rule a "miracle of God" ahead of the March 4 presidential election.

His brashness and his coziness with the Kremlin has much to do with what religion experts describe as mounting anticlerical feelings in Russia since his inception in 2009.

"A large portion of educated Russians had expected Kirill to steer the church on a more intellectual path, to bring the church closer to today's realities," Mitrokhin says. "Instead, Kirill has distinguished himself only with measures in support of the authorities and is exerting increasingly crude pressure on civil institutions. Kirill also likes to display wealth and luxury. He and his allies actively defend the idea that the church must be rich. All this has prompted a barrage of criticism."

And in another indication that the Russian Orthodox Church is in no mood to forgive detractors, a court outside St. Petersburg this month gave a blogger a suspended sentence for saying that "God is a myth."

The court confiscated his computer as further punishment.