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Russian Patriarch Gets State Privileges, Protection

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/patriarch-gets-state-privileges-protection/430347.html 4/2/2011 By Alexander Bratersky The church is separate from
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 8, 2011

      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
      service’s 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
      Yeltsin’s 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,” Gainutdin’s 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 General’s Office.

      Zdravomysliye’s 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 Constitution’s 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.
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