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Russia: Orthodox Church States Its Case For More Involvement In Foreign, Domestic Policies

The Russian Orthodox Church made its case this week for actively participating in the country's foreign and domestic policies. The World Orthodox Russian People's Council called for the unity of Orthodox people and the preservation of the role of Orthodox culture in the world.

Prague, 6 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Eighth World Orthodox Russian People's Council signaled this week that the Orthodox Church would like to more actively participate in Russia's foreign and domestic policies.

Russian Orthodox clergymen made several political declarations seeking a more prominent political role for the church.

Speaking at the congress, Aleksii II, the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, outlined his vision of the role the Orthodox Church should play in the world. He said Orthodox nations should unite in the face of new challenges to preserve the values of Eastern Orthodox culture.

"The challenges of time naturally push nations and states, [through] culture, world outlook, and spiritual position, to unite," Aleksii said. "Integration trends are on the way in Europe. Muslim states seek to consolidate their [position] on the world stage. Is it possible, under such conditions, for countries with ages-long Orthodox traditions and culture to remain disconnected [and] on the sidelines?"

"So, for a long time now, we have seen moves by the Russian Orthodox to expand its profile within society and within the government."
Aleksii asked whether a situation in which the voice of the Orthodox Church is not clearly heard can be permitted to continue.

This week's 8th World Orthodox Russian People's Council offered advice to Russian authorities in solving the country's moral and economic problems. It discussed obstacles standing on the way of Russia's prosperity and produced recommendations on topics ranging from contract enforcement and privatization to unemployment and paying taxes.

Russia's Orthodox Church has lent its support to two main state programs -- promoting private pensions and an anti-graft drive in which it reinterpreted the 10 Commandments to read, among others, "Thou shalt not bribe," "Work should not cripple and kill a human being," and "There is no place for corruption and other crimes in the economy."

Metropolitan Cyril, the chairman of external relations at the Moscow Patriarchate, said the church cannot stand silently by as moral norms are being ignored. "The problem of morality during the transitional period in the country, when new economic relations are being formed, is evident for everyone," he said. "How will this [revised 10 Commandments] text be used? Some people say [to us]: 'Your work [adopting the new commandments] was useless. Those who take part in economic relations are ignoring laws. Why do you think they will listen to your moralizing? Will they accept these principles?' Of course, it is impossible to stop a criminal from committing a crime only using words, but it doesn't mean that this word shouldn't be heard in the society. Today, somebody should say very clearly what style of relations in the economy we support."

Speakers offered various recipes to accelerate the changes. Yurii Boldarev of the Ukrainian Union of Orthodox Citizens said the monarchy should be introduced and that Russian President Vladimir Putin should be appointed czar. Another speaker, an Orthodox musician, urged that rock music be combated because of its Satanic messages.

Russian authorities were hard-pressed not to hear the calls of the participants. Almost all branches of the Russian state and many political parties were represented in the discussions. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, and politicians from the Russian parliament were all guests and speakers at the congress.

Felix Corley is the editor of Forum 18, a Norway-based news agency covering religious freedom issues in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. Corley says the Russian Orthodox Church has always been close to the Russian state and that this trend has been clearly visible over the last decade.

"On a state level, the Russian Orthodox Church has been signing agreements with individual ministries and individual government agencies for some time, and there's the issue of Orthodox culture as a subject within schools. So, for a long time now, we have seen moves by the Russian Orthodox to expand its profile within society and within the government," Corley said.

Corley says the problem in Russia is the state's consent to the Orthodox Church participating actively in politics. Historically, he says, the Orthodox Church was always a junior partner but that that is changing somewhat. "The Orthodox Church is still really the junior partner with the state, but the state has allowed it to gain a significant foothold within various institutions, even if many state officials are very wary about the Orthodox Church and quite often don't even trust it," he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church supports the state in many critical areas.

Corley says the Orthodox Church wants the Russian state to stay together and supports Moscow's policies in breakaway Chechnya. It supports the reunification of the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, which have large Orthodox populations.

Corley says many believe the Orthodox Church has been reluctant to accept the breakup of the Soviet Union. He also says the Patriarchate is very close to the Foreign Ministry.

Speaking this week at the congress, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov praised the government's cooperation with the Orthodox Church. He said joint efforts led to the registration of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this story.)