09/19/2019, 15.28
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Russian priests defend rights of arrested protesters

by Vladimir Rozanskij

More than 80 clergymen from the Moscow Patriarchate have criticised the police for its violent methods and for the unfair imprisonment of protesters. Oleg Batov, who set up a theology professorship at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, is one of them. Priests inspired by the testimony of the late Fr Alexander Men, the "spiritual father" of dissent in the old atheist regime, did the same. Teachers and lawyers have also issued open letters. The Moscow Patriarchate has reacted with irony, calling for caution.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – A group of Russian Orthodox priests signed an open letter addressed to the authorities of the Russian Federation. In it they defend protesters arrested recently for protesting and rallying in favour of "democratic elections" to the Moscow City Duma.

The letter, published on Tuesday, was initially signed by only 30 clergymen. After one day, the number of signatures rose to 80 and has been growing ever since. The text expresses concern about punitive measures, which according to priests must not be excessive, but "proportionate to the violation of the law".

The letter opens quoting one of prophets of old (Micah 6: 8) who warned people to "do justice", and refers to the "pastoral duty to practise charity towards prisoners". The document also calls for a "review of court decisions regarding the duration of detention” imposed on people involved in the so-called ‘Moscow Case’, namely the recent wave of protest.

Specific cases are cited, like that of Konstantin Kotov who "did not commit any act of violence" against police or other citizens. His only fault was to try to intercede for people being arrested, carrying a banner with words from the late Fr Alexander Men, "Mercy is everything we aspire to". Kotov was sentenced to four years in a prison camp.

The authors of the letter express their surprise, shared by most public opinion, at the court’s refusal to allow as evidence video footage shot during the incident, showing the peaceful behaviour of those arrested for protesting against unjustified police violence.

There is a risk that "people will lose confidence in the Russian judicial system", and that the system will be too repressive using means to "intimidate" peaceful citizens, generating a climate of terror that undoubtedly elicit memories of tragic Soviet past.

Protoiereus Oleg Batov, who is behind the appeal, was the first to sign it. The clergyman, who is also a theologian, set up a professorship of theology at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, one of the successes of the Moscow Patriarchate in recent years.

Other signatories include several people from communities linked to the late Fr Alexander Men, the "spiritual father" of dissent opposed to the old atheist regime, like his main heir, Fr Alexander Borisov, and Fr Ioann (Giovanni) Guaita, an Italian-Russian priest who welcomed some young protesters at the Saints Cosmas and Damian Church in the central Moscow.

In Europe, Russian priests have also signed, including some from the Russian European Exarchate who recently joined the Moscow Patriarchate, like Fr Vladimir Zelinsky, based in Brescia (Italia). Other additional priests and monks from across Russia have added their names as well.

The only reaction from the Moscow Patriarchate to the open letter came in a statement by its spokesman Vakhtang Kipshidze. In his view, "the Church has the right to compassion, specifically the right to intercede for the convicted, and actively uses it, especially in private." He invites priests to raise funds for good lawyers, rather than waste their time on letters.

The statement sparked protests because of its "mocking tone against so many respectable priests", a professor at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow said with respect to Kipshidze.

The priests' letter moved others to take a public stance. Some high school teachers followed with their own letter, which already reached 800 signatures. One from lawyers has also been circulating but it is not known how many have signed it.

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