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Kremlin Doesn't Trust Orthodox Leaders

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  • V. J. Boitchenko
    RUSSIA: KREMLIN DOESN T TRUST ORTHODOX LEADERS, SAYS TOP OFFICIAL. by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service At the highest level of the Putin administration
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 11, 2001
      by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

      At the highest level of the Putin administration there are a handful of
      decision-makers whose brief includes religious issues. Maksim Meyer is one.
      After working on Vladimir Putin's presidential campaign with foremost
      public relations specialist Gleb Pavlovsky, Meyer became deputy director of
      the new administration's internal policy department. The post's main task
      of political planning, according to Meyer, requires an awareness of 'what
      is going on in religion', upon which subject he gave Keston News Service a
      wide-ranging interview in Moscow on 30 August.

      Church-state relations

      Contrary to popular belief in the West, the Putin government's relations
      with the Moscow Patriarchate are currently 'strained', according to Meyer,
      and have been so since the publication of the Russian Orthodox Church's
      Social Doctrine last summer. The particular bone of contention in that
      document, he explained, was its originally monarchist slant, which had
      concerned the new government: 'The Russian Orthodox Church is so close to
      the state that they ought to consult us - we are constantly supporting them.'

      On 6 September Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, secretary of the Moscow Patriarchate's
      Department for External Church Relations, told Keston that no changes had
      been made at any stage to the Social Doctrine's position on the monarchy.
      Meyer, however, maintained that the monarchist sentiments were toned down,
      and suggested that the Church had consequently introduced a statement
      spelling out legitimate circumstances for civil disobedience, which had
      further strained relations. 'You can interpret that in any way you like,
      they could demand all pre-revolutionary church property and we could
      resist, to which they could respond that we are applying an anti-church
      policy and cite that part of the social doctrine.' Currently, said Meyer,
      'our leadership thinks that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church
      is dishonest and doesn't trust them.'

      Church in society

      Russia is a 'ritual nation' ('obryadnaya strana') without deep faith,
      according to Meyer. During Lent, he pointed out to Keston, expensive
      restaurants are empty: 'People fast but they don't go to church.' In that
      case, asked Keston, why does the government evidently consider the Church
      to be a significant political factor, especially since sociological polls
      consistently put the percentage of devoutly practising Orthodox in low
      single figures? The number of true believers evidently does not impinge
      upon the Church's influence, said Meyer, since Patriarch Aleksi II scores
      high ratings in the opinion polls. 'Many people trust them - we know what
      is going on in the Church in reality, but the people don't. The fact that
      they are not influential in matters of faith is unimportant - they are a
      social instrument, a moral authority.' In Meyer's view, however, the
      Church's high public profile should not give it cause for complacency. 'The
      Church just involves itself in intrigues, money and relations with the
      state, while its core is crumbling away and trickling out. In the provinces
      people are dropping into sectarian practices - this always was a very
      sectarian country. They need to set up an Inquisition.'

      Who will be next patriarch?

      One of the main difficulties concerning the Church, volunteered Meyer, is
      that the Putin administration cannot see a strong candidate for future
      patriarch. (Stating that Patriarch Aleksi was in 'great shape', he
      nevertheless maintained that this was an issue which had to be constantly
      borne in mind.) Meyer described Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and
      Kaliningrad as a 'difficult passenger' and 'too complicated'.

      Nevertheless, Metropolitan Kirill remains the church figure with whom the
      Kremlin conducts its main dialogue, he said, and indicated that this was
      due to the blinkered outlook of all the others. Keston tentatively
      suggested an alternative in Metropolitan Mefodi of Voronezh and Lipetsk,
      who last November represented the Church at a high-level meeting with
      Meyer's colleague in religious matters, Sergei Abramov. According to Meyer,
      however, 'it wouldn't actually be very likely to be him'. Another figure
      reputedly close to the Kremlin, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov) of
      Moscow's Sretensky (Presentation) Monastery, was, in Meyer's view
      'ideologically closer' to the government but ranked among those church
      representatives with whom it was difficult to maintain dialogue. 'They are
      supposedly ready to support the state, but they also have high ambitions -
      and they aren't actually that influential.'

      In Meyer's view, the Church's 'personnel crisis' would mean that the next
      patriarch would in all likelihood be an interim figure. A strong, dynamic
      figure in the Caucasus who 'really understood the situation there would
      make a very good patriarch,' commented Meyer, 'but there just isn't anyone.'

      Putin's religiosity

      Turning to the issue of Putin's personal faith, Keston cited British Prime
      Minister Tony Blair's proximity to the Catholic faith alongside his stated
      intention not to challenge Britain's abortion law, since, in his view, it
      would go against the democratic will of the majority. Was Putin's position
      on religious matters similar? Currently, said Meyer, it was. With respect
      to the Russian president's formal links with the Church, Meyer
      disapprovingly accused Archimandrite Tikhon of purposely spreading rumours
      that he was Putin's spiritual father. 'It is absolutely not true,' he
      maintained, 'neither of Putin nor even of his wife.' On a personal level,
      Putin considers himself Orthodox, assured Meyer, and cited his swift
      response to the question of what moral values should be reintroduced into
      Russia - 'Why, Orthodox moral values of course!' On the other hand,
      stressed Meyer, Putin 'understands that we have other confessions in this

      'Traditional' confessions?

      A theme to which Meyer repeatedly returned was that of Islam. The Putin
      administration has yet to come to a proper understanding of Islam, he said,
      for which task western expertise would be greatly welcomed. Meyer spoke of
      the need for Russia's own institute for training Islamic clergy 'to stop
      them going to Saudi Arabia'. However, while he alleged that the Russian
      Orthodox Church requested government protection from Islam (on 6 September
      Fr Chaplin denied to Keston that the Church saw any particular threat from
      Islam), Meyer claimed that both confessions would rank as equals should a
      status of traditional confession be introduced in Russia. Claiming to be
      unaware of the two draft religious policies currently in circulation - both
      of which propose such a status - Meyer envisaged it as extending to
      Catholics and Protestants. When Keston asked whether Baptists, Pentecostals
      and Adventists would all be included as traditional Protestants, Meyer
      began to muse that 'a line would have to be drawn somewhere'. However, he
      then swiftly changed tack, stating firmly: 'But I am against the whole idea
      - it is all the intrigues of the Moscow Patriarchate - we don't need such a
      status. If the Russian Orthodox Church has problems they need to sort them
      out themselves. It is their problem if people leave parishes and go to the
      Pentecostals, if they can't attract people.'

      Equality versus privileges

      During his August visit to Solovetsky Monastery, Putin praised Russian
      Orthodoxy's historical emphasis on the equality of all peoples which, he
      said, 'must be made the backbone of Russia's domestic and foreign
      policies'. Was this an indication of a preference for an even-handed
      religious policy originating lower down the presidential administration?
      Meyer told Keston that it was not: 'No, he thought it up himself. He thinks
      up a lot himself.'

      However, while the Kremlin is in favour of a system of concordats with
      different confessions rather than a traditional confession status, revealed
      Meyer, the Russian Orthodox Church is opposed. 'They say that they're
      independent, the CHURCH, and that they don't want to return to the
      totalitarian period.' Meyer indicated that many of the Church's demands
      were unrealistic. 'They asked for 20 or 30 large buildings in central
      Moscow which they could rent to commercial concerns. When we asked what we
      would do with the present occupants, they suggested that we evict them! Why
      should the state evict people so that the Church can have those
      properties?' (On 6 September Fr Vsevolod Chaplin confirmed that the Church
      had requested - and sometimes received - such properties, and that
      commercial concerns would be among their tenants.) According to Meyer, the
      Church is 'a vast, social corporation now - like a trade union - and the
      state can't have friendly relations with only one corporation'.

      Committee for Religious Affairs?

      According to Meyer, religious issues rarely cross Putin's desk - a small
      team within the internal policy department discusses issues as they arise
      with officials from the lower-ranking Department for Relations with
      Religious Organisations headed by Andrei Protopopov. Meyer is not
      particularly happy with this arrangement, however. 'We are always taking
      approximate decisions. Religious policy is money, property, provincial
      conflicts between secular and religious bodies, religious extremism. You
      can't burden the administration with these things - we've got other things
      to deal with, like industry.' Meyer declared that he is thus in favour of a
      state committee for religious affairs, while seeing no need for anything as
      substantial as a ministry. Emphasising that discussion of this issue within
      his department has yet to reach a verdict, Meyer told Keston that, if it
      turned out to be in favour of such a religious affairs body, one would be
      set up 'no matter what the Russian Orthodox Church thinks'. (END)

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