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Orthodoxy in former Soviet republics predicted to increase in influence

OSLO, Norway (BP)–Authorities in Russia have granted the Russian Orthodox Church unique access to government institutions such as schools, the army and prisons in recent months, according to Forum 18 News Service.

This situation exemplifies a larger trend of the Russian Orthodox Church partnering with Russian authorities in attempt to control religious expression, said John Moldovan, who was recently named associate professor of evangelism and intercultural studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Despite the advances of Orthodoxy in Russia, however, new laws in the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Turkmenistan are proving hostile toward Russian Orthodoxy, according to Forum 18, an Internet news service focusing on persecuted Christians and other religious groups in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.

Russia’s 1993 constitution declares the country a secular state free from any compulsory or state religion. Yet according to a wide-ranging survey conducted by Forum 18 released May 27, agreements which give the Russian Orthodox Church access to state institutions and “emphasize Orthodoxy as the legitimate ideology of Russian state tradition” include:

— In 1996 the Moscow Patriarchate entered an agreement with the Ministry of Internal Affairs stipulating that prisons must provide “favorable conditions” for Russian Orthodox clergy to conduct religious talks and church services.

— In 1997 the Moscow Patriarchate launched a patriotic education program with the Ministry of Defense designed to “revive the Orthodox traditions of the Russian army and navy.”

— A 1999 agreement between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ministry of Education began a program whereby Russian Orthodox officials work with government personnel to draft state standards for teaching theology and religion.

— Local authorities in the Samara region of Russia established the first state secondary school to be attached to an Orthodox church in January 2003.

Additionally, Forum 18 reported that the Russian authorities have no plans to offer other religious groups, including evangelicals, similar access to government institutions.

Commenting on the idea of opening interfaith chapels in Russian train stations similar to existing Russian Orthodox chapels, Valentin Temakov, assistant editor of the Moscow Patriarchate’s publishing department and coordinator of the railway chapels project, told Forum 18, “We take a negative view of the idea of affording the opportunity of holding prayer services at stations and airports to passengers professing other faiths. Orthodoxy is the state-forming religion and it is inappropriate to talk about some kind of democracy and equality of confessions in this context.”

These actions fall into a long history of Eastern Orthodox control in Russia, Moldovan told Baptist Press.

“The [Russian Orthodox] Church was always associated with the ones in power,” he said. “During the czars in Russia, the church … operated as the state church. When the church was controlled by the communists, in the beginning it received harsh persecution but later the leaders accommodated to that and they received indirectly quite a lot of power.

“Now you are seeing a very strange merging of the ex-communists with their hatred against religious expressions, … some of them still in the political arena, with the Orthodox Church in suppressing, in maintaining control of the religious expressions in the country.”

In Belarus though, the situation is quite different. A religion law enacted last November states that convents, monasteries and monastic communities must have at least 10 participants and that theological educational institutions must have qualified tutors proficient in both state languages, Belarusian and Russian. Institutions failing to meet these requirements may be shut down, Forum 18 reported May 28.

Yet according to the official website of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, several monastic communities in Belarus fail to meet the 10 participant minimum, Forum 18 reported. Orthodox theological institutions including Minsk Theological Seminary and Minsk Theological Academy also report difficulties in meeting the new requirements, according to the news service.

Moldovan said such restrictions in Belarus represent a remnant of the religious persecution experienced under communist rule.

“Belarus has somehow an unhealthy inertia in terms of somehow still looking backward, looking to the communist times. Many of the leaders, instead of being ex-communists, they are still communists with powerful ideas in terms of controlling everything,” Moldovan said.

“Here you have situations where the Eastern Orthodox Church, unable to establish solid ties with those in leadership, falls prey to the anti-religious propaganda established by Belarus.”

Orthodox believers in Turkmenistan have experienced restrictions on their religious freedoms as well.

A new Turkmen policy preventing citizens from holding dual Russian-Turkmen citizenship may pose difficulty for Turkmen Orthodox citizens wishing to visit important Orthodox sites in Russia, Forum 18 reported May 30.

Additionally, a decree banning residents of Turkmenistan from receiving Russian publications by mail bars subscriptions from Turkmenistan to the Orthodox Church’s main journal, the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, according to Forum 18.

In contrast with the persecution in Belarus, however, Orthodox persecution in Turkmenistan results from Islamic influence in the government, Moldovan said.

“The source of persecution [in Turkmenistan] is … the Islamization of some of those republics of the former Soviet Union. It’s giving more and more hints about a desire to Islamize and somehow to officialize the Muslim expression at the expense of others,” he said.

Despite these pockets of Eastern Orthodox persecution, Moldovan predicts that ties between the Orthodox Church and civil governments of the former Soviet republics will become more pronounced in the years to come.

“The church and nationalism go hand in hand,” he said. “This has been the case in Georgia. It’s been the case in Russia. It’s been the case in the Ukraine. And in all these former Soviet states the threat is strong today…. Probably the nationalistic feelings will enhance the power of the Eastern Orthodox Church and vice versa.”
Forum 18, based in Oslo, Norway, can be accessed on the Web at www.forum18.org.