MOSCOW -- In his 26 years of service to the Russian Orthodox Church, Father Andrei Lorgus has heard the confessions of believers from all walks of life.
But as a crackdown on Russia's opposition continued, with prison sentences and raids of protesters' homes, Lorgus said the officials he counsels at Moscow's St. Nicholas Church - among them judges, investigators, and law enforcement officers - were torn between their Christian conscience and their duties to the Russian state.
"I can feel tension inside them, that they're reflecting on things and have pangs of conscience," he said in a telephone interview. "I simply tell them, 'We will all answer before God.'"
Last week, Lorgus was one of more than 180 Russian Orthodox priests who signed an open letter urging the authorities to scale back their clampdown and free many activists sentenced to prison for attending protests. It was an intervention in politics that church scholars say is unprecedented in Russia since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Signatories of the letter, which was published on the website Pravmir.ru, condemned the use of force by riot police and appealed to Russia's judges and members of law enforcement.
"Court cases should not be of a repressive character, courts cannot be used as a means of suppressing dissenters, and force should not be applied with unjustified severity," the letter read, calling some of the sentences "more like intimidation of Russian citizens than fair verdicts."
The authors specifically cited the case of Konstantin Kotov, a 34-year-old software engineer who was sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of repeat violations of the law on public demonstrations, and called for judges to reconsider all prison sentences handed down in connection with the protests.
The priests' open letter coincided with similar appeals from groups of Russian school teachers, doctors, students, lawyers, and, most recently, members of the Academy of Sciences. But while each employee of the Russian government faces repercussions for publicly expressing political views in this way, the overture from Russian Orthodox priests seemed particularly striking to Russians both inside and outside the church.
"A letter from some 180 priests as an act of solidarity with innocently arrested and convicted civic activists is without precedent in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church," said religious expert Sergei Chapnin.
In e-mailed comments, Chapnin suggested that the letter might signal a change in mood among Russian Orthodox clergy, and that a sizeable group no longer fears voicing their condemnation of the state's clampdown even if the church itself and its leadership are not on board. Patriarch Kirill, who has headed Russia's dominant religious organization for over a decade, has displayed loyalty to President Vladimir Putin and rarely questions Kremlin policies.
Internal Church Pressure
In the wake of the publication, the Russian Orthodox Church has stopped short of publicly condemning those who signed it. A spokesman told the state news agency TASS that the letter was "political" because it singled out certain defendants like Kotov. But in a September 20 report, the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta quoted unnamed sources within the church as saying that no concerted disciplinary actions against signatories was planned.
Yet at least some of the priests who endorsed the letter appear to have been pressured to reject it.
On September 21, reports emerged that Dionisy Kuznetsov, a clergyman in the Volga River city of Samara, was told to request forgiveness from the Russian Orthodox Church for his decision to sign the appeal. According to a copy of the letter he submitted, which was posted on Facebook by journalist Maria Sveshnikova, Kuznetsov crossed out the word "request" and wrote "explanation" instead.
"I signed the priests' open letter without [the church's] blessing because I don't think one needs to ask permission to act according to one's conscience," Kuznetsov wrote in the letter, which is addressed to Metropol Sergiy, the head of the Samara chapter of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In a subsequent interview with independent TV channel Dozhd, Kuznetsov said that he was one of several of the letter's signatories who were told to apologize. The church has denied that anyone has been instructed to disavow the letter.
Chapnin said he hadn't heard of other such cases besides Kuznetsov's, but suggested that other priests may be disciplined at a later stage. He said many priests had decided not to sign the letter precisely out of fear of the possible consequences.
Not Taking Sides
Lorgus said there was another reason, too. He concerns himself first and foremost with the welfare of his congregation, he said, and his decision to sign the letter was a risk --- he knew that members of his flock who had confided in him as a neutral intermediary of God might now ascribe to him a set of political views incompatible with their own.
"When a person turns to me, he wants to be sure that I, as a priest, have no preconceptions about him and no political convictions," he said. "But if a priest declares his social, political, or ideological views, then people will categorize him and may no longer come."
Lorgus, who said he helped draft the open letter, insisted that it professed no hard political position, instead citing passages from the Bible and tenets of Christian teaching. He is not defending any political movement or party, he said, but defending those who are being unfairly treated.
"At the present moment, I'm on the side of those who are being beaten and humiliated," he said. "If the day comes when policemen are being tried, persecuted, or deprived of work and dignity, perhaps I'll take their side."