By Alexander Bratersky
The church is separate from the state in Russia,
the Constitution says. But the Federal Guard
Service apparently has its own understanding of
what that implies, as it treats Russian Orthodox
Patriarch Kirill as a de-facto state official, rights activists said.
The agency, which is responsible for the security
of senior officials, provided its services to
Kirill free of charge, the pro-secularism group
Zdravomysliye (Good Sense) reported on its web site.
The group filed an enquiry with the agency asking
why the patriarch receives such treatment. A
written reply dated Jan. 21 said it was made on
the order of the president in accordance with Article 80 of the Constitution.
That article states merely that the president is
the guarantor of the Constitution and does not
mention privileges for religious leaders.
This reply looks like a mockery. Bureaucrats
explained a violation of the Constitution by
referring to an article that says the president
is the guarantor of the Constitution,
Zdravomyslie head Artyom Safronchuk told The Moscow Times.
An earlier letter from the agency, dating back to
December, cited federal legislation on state
security, not a presidential decree, as the
reason for protecting the patriarch.
If necessary, state-sponsored security can be
provided to the third parties by decision of the
president, said the letter, signed by the
services spokesman, Alexander Ryaskov.
But the legislation in question limits third
parties to state officials and does not cover religious leaders.
The Federal Guard Service was not available for
the comment Thursday. The Kremlin has not commented on the matter.
Safronchuk, 30, a self-confessed atheist, said he
took up the matter because his group is trying to
combat the growing influence of religion on Russian society.
I deeply believe that preferences given to any
religious group are a threat to national security, he said.
But Valery Streletsky, who was a senior official
in the presidential security service during Boris
Yeltsins tenure in the 1990s, said the tradition
of guarding the patriarch goes back to Soviet times.
He was and will be guarded. Even though the
church is separate from the state, the patriarch
is seen as an instrument of state power,
Streletsky told The Moscow Times last week.
For Kirill, state-sponsored security guards are
an indication that he is a part of the ruling
elite, said religion expert Alexander Soldatov.
He considers himself a business and public
figure. On one hand, he portrays himself as an
accessible person, but on the other, it is
difficult to get access to him, Soldatov said by telephone.
Kirill, who presides over the biggest religious
community in Russia, also enjoys the right to use
a car with a flashing blue light, a notorious
device authorizing vehicles to ignore most traffic rules.
The usage of flashing blue lights is another
privilege reserved mainly for state officials.
The Orthodox patriarch is currently the only head
of a major religious denomination with such
privileges, as chief rabbi Berl Lazar and supreme
mufti Ravil Gainutdin lost the right to it in a
governmental decision several years ago.
We are complying with orders, though the mufti
sometimes gets anxious when stuck in Moscow
traffic jams, Gainutdins spokeswoman Gulnar Gaziyeva said.
Safronchuk of Zdravomysliye said his group
which claims to have 20 core members, but also
thousands of followers will continue the fight
against state privileges for Kirill, and called
on supporters to file their own requests on the
matter with the Kremlin and Prosecutor Generals Office.
Zdravomysliyes crusade for secularism is not
limited to criticizing the patriarch. Last month,
the group also financed the installation on
Moscow streets of a series of billboards quoting
the Constitutions words on separation of church and state.
It took the group three months to have the
billboards placed, as activists had to go through
more than 20 outdoor advertising companies,
including industry leader News Outdoor, before
they found a firm willing to process their unusual order, Safronchuk said.
The project was paid for by donations from
citizens who shared our civil position, he said.