MOSCOW -- The head of the Russian Orthodox Church used a historic speech to parliament to call for restrictions on abortions and press the country to embrace conservative values to counter what he described as the erosion of morals in a "post-Christian" world.
In what was touted as modern Russia's first address to parliament by an Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Kirill said on January 22 that the "horrifyingly high" abortion rate is "one of Russia's main misfortunes."
He called on the State Duma lawmakers to end the practice of free, state-provided abortions and said cutting the number of abortions in half would result in "sustainable and powerful demographic growth."
The call, which was met with applause from the floor of the lower house of parliament, came amid a grandstanding speech in defense of "traditional" values that reflected the rising sway of the Russian Orthodox Church as President Vladimir Putin takes the country on a conservative, authoritarian turn.
The speech was broadcast live on Russian state television in its entirety.
Putin, a longtime Soviet KGB officer who has touted the Russian Orthodox Church as a moral bulwark, has called reversing the country's post-Soviet population decline a major priority.
Both Putin and Kirill have been faced criticism from liberal Russians over the close ties between church and government in what the constitution says is a secular state.
Officials estimate there were 900,000 abortions in Russia in 2013, a level much higher than many countries.
The high rate is often described as a legacy of the Soviet era, when abortions were widespread due in part to a lack of contraceptives, sex education, and family planning.
Pro-choice activists say drastic attempts to curb abortions would drive women to use dangerous underground abortion clinics, an argument Kirill called "nonsense."
"The cost of legal child-killing operations should be the same as underground ones. But it should not be at the expense of taxpayers," he said.
Kirill also condemned the practice of surrogate motherhood, which he said turned women and children into commodities.
"We are distorting the very notion of the mother, of the privacy of familial relations, their very sanctity," he said.
Kirill also delivered thinly veiled criticism of the West, which Putin and other Russian officials have suggested is sacrificing its morals by pursuing liberal policies and secularism.
"The world we live in is often called 'post-Christian' and sometimes 'postreligious.' This term conceals a terrible diagnosis of the spiritual and moral condition of societies in many countries," he said.
"The idea of absolutely prioritizing the value of free choice and of rejecting the priority of moral norms has become a slow-acting bomb for Western civilization," he said.
He said Russia should cherrypick the best aspects of its history to lay the foundations for its future, lauding the Soviet Union for establishing a “solidarity” between its people that paved the way to “feats” such as the construction of the Baikal-Amur Railway.
“As soon as we start talking about the Soviet period, some idealize, others demonize. But was there something else that this time brought about and that today we can boldly adopt and include in our personal life philosophy? There was solidarity.”
He went on to call for the political parties in the audience to display that same solidarity or unity, warning that political competition between parties over Russian values could make Russia weak and vulnerable to exploitation by its “enemies.”
"There won't be a Russia," he warned.
Kirill called for lawmakers to increase religious teaching in schools and to boost support for Cossacks who have undergone a revival in recent years, particularly in southern regions like Krasnodar Krai where they have been used to police the streets and monitor migrants.
"The fundamental lifestyle of the Cossack is primarily founded on Orthodox faith and love of the fatherland. This is why for centuries they have served as fierce defenders of Russian statehood and today we know that they play a very important role," Kirill said.