Russia Watch: Is Russia turning Protestant?
Russia Watch: Is Russia turning Protestant?
In 1990, an American anthropologist wrote a controversial book: “Is Latin
America Turning Protestant?” Two decades later, that same provocative question
can be asked of Russia.
Who will win: The Church of the Golden Domes? Or the Church of the
Before I grapple with Russia, let’s look at what is happening in Brazil, a
country steeped in centuries of Catholicism.
On Thursday night, the crowd on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach gave a
powerful vote for Catholicism.
My sons William and Alexander and I were lost in a happy, singing river of
more than 1 million young people — Catholic faithful who came to welcome pope
Francis, Latin America’s first pope. On Sunday morning, that figure was topped
as some reporters estimated that 3 million people attended the pope’s farewell
But the new pope’s first international visit had a strategic element. It was
clearly aimed at countering the explosive growth of Protestantism in what long
has been called “the world’s most populous Catholic country.”
In 1960, 93 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholics. Today,
58 percent do.
In 1960, 4 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Protestants. Today,
nearly 25 percent do.
Five centuries after Portuguese explorers dropped anchor in this lovely
harbor, Catholics now are the minority in South America’s third largest city,
population 6.3 million.
In Brazil, Protestant Evangelicals make up a powerful bloc of 73 deputies in
Brazil’s Congress. Last month, Evangelicals fielded 800,000 followers for an
annual “March for Jesus” through central Sao Paulo. In this environment,
Brazilian politicians have banished the phrase “Protestant sects” from their
In Russia, the Kremlin takes an opposite strategy. Since returning to the
Kremlin last year as president, Vladimir Putin seems determined to restore the
Orthodox Church to the official status it enjoyed during the time of the Czars.
Increasingly, Protestant churches are kept underground. But they are expanding
Last month, President Putin signed into law vaguely worded “defense of
religion” legislation. In theory, this protects from “insults” Russia’s four
religions deemed “historic” by a 1997 law – Christian Orthodoxy, Judaism,
Buddhism and Islam.
Last weekend, any illusion that the law covered Islam disappeared when 263
Central Asians were detained in Moscow for gathering in an informal prayer house
and partaking the traditional “Iftar” dinner to break the Ramadan fast. Although
there are about 1 million Muslims in Moscow today, the city has only four
mosques. City officials deny construction permits, saying most Muslims in Moscow
are guest workers who will go home.
Instead, official support for the Orthodox Church can be seen everywhere –
from the restoration of golden domed churches, to President Putin’s televised
attendance at Orthodox Easter services, to the pre-election comment last year by
Patriarch Kirill that Putin’s leadership of Russia is “a miracle of God.”
The patriarch recently was given use of lodgings inside the Kremlin, a unique
privilege enjoyed during the time of the Czars.
As the Orthodox Church exerts increasing influence over the Russian state,
admirals of Russia’s Pacific Fleet nearly dropped traditional images of Neptune,
the Roman god of the sea, from last Sunday’s Navy Day celebrations. A local
Orthodox leader had warned that pagan gods should have no place “at a
celebration of an Orthodox Christian Navy.”
Meanwhile, Russian Protestants increasingly hold religious services in living
rooms as their pastors are routinely denied permits to build churches. Visas for
foreign missionaries are rare. Russia’s anti-Protestant actions are regularly
chronicled in Forum 18 News Service, a website based in Oslo, Norway.
But out of sight does not mean out of mind. Despite the efforts of Russian
police and prosecutors, Protestantism keeps growing in Russia.
Last Easter, as is customary, Russian police were deployed to every Orthodox
church in the land. They kept order and conducted a census. According to
Interior Ministry statistics, about 4 million Russians attended Easter services
at Russian Orthodox churches. That is 2.7 percent of the population in Russia, a
nation where around 65 percent of survey respondents call themselves Orthodox.
According to a survey made last April by the Public Opinion Foundation, about
half of Russians who call themselves Orthodox admit they have never opened a
Russia’s Justice Ministry has registered 14,616 Orthodox parishes, 4,409
Protestant parishes, and 234 Catholic parishes. But Anatoly Pchelintsev, a
religion specialist and professor at the Russian State Humanitarian University,
estimates that for every registered Protestant congregation, there are at least
two unregistered ones.
Pchelintsev, who edits the Religion and Law publication here, concludes that
Russia has about 15,000 Protestant congregations, roughly equal to the number of
Russian Orthodox ones. He says the number of Catholic parishes is roughly the
same as the official number.
In Siberia, long a land of dissenters and discontents, there are believed to
be more Protestants in church on Sunday mornings than Russian Orthodox. On one
recent visit to Khabarovsk, the second largest city of the Russian Far East, I
went to a packed Baptist church, only a kilometer from a sparsely attended
Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The massive Cathedral had been built with federal
What is to be done?
In the 16th Century, the Russian Orthodox Church rejected the Protestant
Reformation that swept Northern Europe. In the 17th century, minor reforms by
Patriarch Nikon triggered the Great Schism, provoking millions of “Old
Believers” to reject Moscow’s Patriarch. Some moved as far away as Alaska.
But with the vast majority of contemporary Russians rarely entering churches,
many feel the Orthodox Church will have to change — or end up with the declining
demographics of Brazil’s Catholic Church.
On Friday, a push for change came from an unexpected corner: Alexander
Lukashenko, the archconservative president of Belarus, a country where half the
population is nominally Orthodox.
“As the world is undergoing change, therefore the Church must change also,”
said Lukashenko, who has received awards from the Belarusian Orthodox Church. “I
think we are on the threshold of reforms in the Orthodox Church.”
“Our church should begin a reform, step-by-step, beginning with the church
language,” he continued, referring to Old Church Slavonic, a 1,000 year old
liturgical language unintelligible to most Russians and Byelorussians.
“The prayers, services and sermons are too long,” Lukashenko continued.
“Adults and the elderly just cannot endure them. One should be brief, succinct
and more modern.”
“I am against the practice of people coming in, listening to a sermon
standing on their feet and having no opportunity at all to sit,” he said,
referring to Russian Orthodox churches that have no chairs or pews. “The
practice of building huge cathedrals is no good either. Churches must be cozy
and warm, and they must not oppress believers.”
Oddly, similar advice came the next day from the far side of the planet.
In a meeting on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis addressed 300 active
and retired Brazilian cardinals and bishops, giving the longest speech of his
“We have labored greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures,”
the pope said in a veiled reference to the millions of Brazilians who have
abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism. “We feel like those who must tally up a
losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us
credible or relevant.”
Then, warming to the central theme of his speech, he said: “At times we lose
people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have
forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to
our people. For ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.”
For Russia, the future offers a choice: Will Russia’s Orthodox Church compete
with Protestantism, or try to crush it?
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