01/05/2018, 19.40
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Roman Lunkin: lights and shadows in Russia’s religious life

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The expert on religious and social issues lists the successes and failures of 2017. On the positive side there is Putin's visit to the Orthodox Synod, the dialogue between Kirill and Filaret of Kyiv, and the return of properties to the Catholic Church in Moscow. On the negative are the anti-Jehovah's Witnesses campaign, the Jewish “fault” in Tsar Nicholas II’s murder, and the forgetfulness towards the Protestant Churches. For Kirill, reforming the Moscow Patriarchate entails the same problems Pope Francis faces.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Roman Lunkin, one of the main observers of religious matters in Russia, has compiled a list of the greatest successes and failures in Russian religious life in the past year. Lunkin heads the Institute of Religion and Law, and is senior research fellow at the Centre for the problems of religion and society at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He published his findings in Religion & Law, a journal of the Institute of Religion and Law, which closely monitors the relationship between the state and religions in Russia.

State and Church "symphony"

According to Lunkin, the main positive event of 2017 was the visit of President Putin to the Orthodox Bishops’ Synod in November, which brought together the leaders of all the Orthodox Churches, almost like and perhaps more than the Pan-Orthodox Council held in June 2016 in Crete, which failed because of the absence of the Russian Church.

For the first time, a Russian head of state greeted Church leaders outside the Kremlin, during a visit to the Synod itself, in the manner of an ancient Byzantine emperor. It was an updated secular version of the "symphony" of old between Church and State, which, in the new Russia, seeks to be a winning formula for the whole Christian world.

Lunkin highlighted other positive elements such as the beginning of a timid thaw between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the non-canonical Patriarchate of Kyiv, following the letter of "repentance" of the Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko). This is one of the biggest wounds left open by the end of the Soviet Union. If healed it could help solve the tragic Ukrainian crisis. As such, it has opened a road towards a truly united Orthodox Church in the Ukraine. However, Lunkin rightly wonders for whom this would be a success. Still, he notes the important result obtained by the patriarch of Moscow Kirill, whose "humanitarian" mediation led to the exchange of prisoners between Kyiv and the Donbass region.

Despite its involvement in the grotesque controversy of the extremist reactions to the film ‘Matilda’, the establishment of a new orthodox social movement like that of the "Forty times Forty" (Sorok Sorokov) is considered an important event, which publicly sets the limelight on a political-ideological aspect that would be far more dangerous if it remained only marginal.

Finally, Lunkin considers as one of the important achievements the formal return to the Russian Catholic Church of part of the buildings of the Saints Peter and Paul Parish on Miljutinsky Lane, in central Moscow, an issue that began in 1992 and was settled after the meeting in Cuba between Kirill and Pope Francis. There is hope now that other disputes can be resolved involving the return of Catholic churches in Smolensk, Kaliningrad, Blagoveshchensk and other parts of Russia.

Anti-religious campaigns against sects

Among the negative things listed in Lunkin's text, there is the much-discussed statement by Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov), Putin’s "spiritual father", following the examination of the remains of Tsar Nicholas II's family. According to Tikhon, the imperial martyrdom followed a "Jewish sacrificial ritual", a statement that sparked extreme anti-Semitic reactions in Russian society. This issue could become even more tragic in 2018, when the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the tsar will be commemorated.

The year 2017, the year of the Revolution, was unfortunately characterised by the start of a fresh anti-religious campaign, like that of the Bolsheviks 100 years ago. Several religious groups became the victims of repressive actions by the courts and police, on the basis of the infamous ‘Yarovaya Law’ which limits the freedom to engage in religious propaganda. Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, various Baptist and Pentecostal communities and other religious groups or local "sects" have felt the weight of the new law.

Lunkin also cites the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation as a missed opportunity to look at the role of Protestant communities in Russia where they are very active and numerous. Formal congratulations from national leaders aside, the event went completely ignored in the country’s various regions.

Likewise, the public initiatives of the patriarchal Church do not seem to get the right attention in society and politics. Lawmakers are not shy when they go after and censor sects and "unofficial" religions, but pay very little heed to the patriarch's calls for limiting or banning abortion, or other demands in the field of public morality or the defence of the family and life.

For its part, public opinion continues to hold Church institutions in low esteem because of scandals and immoral deeds attributed to clergymen and bishops, like those exposed by Deacon Andrei Kuraev, a well-known freelance writer. One wonders how the patriarch can pursue effective structural reform given his apparent indecision in this matter. But then, such a situation is not that much different from the problems Pope Francis faces in the Vatican.

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