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Russian Orthodox Church Sets Tone On Human Rights

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksy II at the Bishops' Council on June 24
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksy II at the Bishops' Council on June 24
A gathering of the Bishops' Council, the top administrative body of the Russian Orthodox Church, has concluded in Moscow with the adoption of a key document on freedom and human rights.

The document, called the Basic Principles of the Russian Church Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom, and Rights, was adopted on June 26 following two years of discussion.

Described by one of its drafters, Orthodox political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, as a "powerful philosophical institution designed to influence the legal model of the Russian state," the principles at times present a direct challenge to widely accepted concepts of human rights.

The church, for example, says abortion and homosexuality cannot be defended as basic rights. Such issues are seen as a product of the Western notion of human rights, which church representatives argue does not apply to Russia and should be replaced by Orthodox principles.

To that end, the Moscow Patriarchate has invited Russian and international human rights activists for a "full-scale" discussion of the basic principles. It has also called for a reexamination of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.

The basic principles also include tenets on a wide range of issues, including blasphemy (which "shall not be justified by the rights of artist, writer, or journalist"), foreign relations (civilizations "should not impose their lifestyle patterns on other civilizations"), and the relationship between state and citizen ("manipulation of people's conscience and choice by government agencies, political powers, economic and information elites is dangerous for the society").

Yakov Krotov, the host of a RFE/RL Russian Service program on religion and Christianity, is critical of the new principles, which he says place the rights of society as a whole above those of individuals.

"That is something that no Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant from the West would ever say, that society should be more important than an individual human being, and that love for the motherland is more important than human rights," Krotov says.

The new document comes at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church is enjoying massive influence in Kremlin policymaking.

President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral on June 29, claimed rising public interest in Orthodoxy is a "positive consequence of the church's revival, and of the serious changes in the life of the church." (The Bishops' Council, which was last held in 2004, this year included for the first time a delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which reunited with the Russian church last year after a schism of nearly 90 years.)

Critics of the new document, however, say the Orthodox Church is deeply out of touch with social reality, and that the new basic principles will have little impact on ordinary life.

"[Church leaders] don't see what's really happening in secular society," said Boris Falikov, a professor of comparative religion at the Russian State University for the Humanities. "They're basically fighting for their own ideas, which are largely imaginary, about what's going on there."