03/03/2021, 09.23
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Moscow, the Old Believers in defence of Jehovah's Witnesses

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The schismatic 17th century community defends “the inalienable right" for the outlawed religious group, even if "they do not share doctrine and ideas". The Old Believers have suffered past "destruction of churches, confiscation of sanctuaries", with "exile and imprisonment, torture and the death penalty". The repression of freedom of conscience raises tensions, conflicts and divisions in society.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - The community of Old Believers (Starovery, also called Staroobrjadtsy or "Old-Ritualists"), the 17th century Russian schismatics, is launching an appeal against the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, prohibited by law since 2017.

In an open letter published yesterday 2 March, it is stated that “freedom of religious confession is one of the inalienable rights of the person, which humanity has conquered over the course of many centuries. This is particularly important for the old believers of Russia, since our priests and faithful, who refused in the 1600s to accept the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, have been subjected to persecution for some centuries.”

With the Moscow Council of 1666, the Slavic-ecclesiastical liturgical books were officially reformed by the will of the patriarch of Moscow Nikon (Minin), with the aim of adapting them to the original Greek-Byzantine ones. The reform, based on approximate concepts of the ancient tradition, was rejected by a large part of the population, led by the protopop Avvakum (Petrov), who wanted to remain faithful to Slavic customs, seeing in them the expression of true faith.

The same Avvakum was burned at the stake in 1682 (photo 2), and the persecution of the Old Believers was unrelenting until the 1905religious tolerance decree, only to resume with the advent of the Bolsheviks in 1917. The community of the Old- Believers is today led by Metropolitan Kornilij of Moscow (Titov, photo 1), who presides over a Church of 15 eparchies and about one million faithful throughout Russia.

As the open letter recalls, "the destruction of churches, the confiscation of shrines, the ban on celebrations, the suspension of civil rights, the imposition of stigmatizing symbols on clothing, exile and imprisonment, torture and punishment of death: this is what the old believers have had to endure in centuries of persecution”. There were also several mass suicides, setting themselves on fire ("auto-pyre"), in order not to submit to the "Nikonian Church". Thus the Old Believers are seen as the fathers of popular dissent in Russia.

The text also recalls the sufferings of the twentieth century, until "new hopes were linked to the fall of the totalitarian regime in the early 1990s. Much was done by the state, society and religious confessions themselves to restore the rights of every citizen to confess any faith. Yet in recent years the situation has worsened; laws and measures are adopted to limit the rights of believers, especially religious minorities”.

After the “Jarovoj law” of 2016, in fact, in addition to Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants Baptists and Pentecostals, members of Scientology and some Asian Buddhist and animist communities, and various groups linked to the phenomenon of neo-paganism were persecuted. The statement states that "Old Believers do not share the doctrine and ideas of the religious association of Jehovah's Witnesses, many postulates of which contradict orthodoxy. And yet, the right to free profession cannot be taken away from the representatives of this community either; Criminal trials in which people are subjected to long periods of detention are especially unacceptable, just for having satisfied their religious needs (for example, reading the Bible), without causing any harm to anyone”.

From their experience of "the Tsarist and Bolshevik regime" the Old Believers say they know that repressions against "those who believe differently " lead to the growth of various tensions in society, to conflicts and divisions that can only be avoided if "the authorities they strictly adhere to the principle of freedom of conscience and religious confession ”. The petition is proposed to "all citizens of Russia who cherish freedom of conscience, regardless of their relationship with religion".

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