Human-rights activists say 2009 represented a breakthrough in relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government. But they say the closer ties appear to place other faiths at a disadvantage.
Sergei Mozgovoi of the independent Freedom of Conscience Institute told a Moscow news conference Russian lawmakers are rushing through laws to legitimize decisions made earlier by President Dmitriy Medvedev on behalf of Russian Orthodoxy. These include teaching the Orthodox faith to the exclusion of others in public schools and universities and establishment of a military chaplain corps.
Mozgovoi says this represents missionary work for the Orthodox Church, which he claims always supports even the most illegal and harmful decisions of government. He says another factor is the government's economic decisions on behalf of the church about real estate and cultural treasures.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on January 5th to discuss the return of church property confiscated by the Soviet Union and still controlled by the Russian state. The Kommersant business daily reported on the 14th that Mr. Putin called for action on a bill stalled in the Economics Ministry since 2007 that would legalize property used by religious groups.
The RIA Novosti News Agency quotes observers as saying the bill would primarily benefit the Russian Orthodox Church and turn it into a major real-estate holder.
Patriarch Kirill spoke in the Kremlin at the opening of a six-day symposium entitled, "Practical Experience and Prospects for Church-State Cooperation in the Area of Education."
The Patriarch says the forum is called upon to unite social forces in the spiritual transformation of society, which is impossible without engaging the entire education system.
Sergei Buryanov, also with the Freedom of Conscience Institute, says the church and state in Russia have a mutually beneficial relationship. Buryanov says authorities gain a few blessings, because the Orthodox Church enjoys relative authority, while religious organizations get real estate and some direct state financing.
There appears to be concern that growing cooperation between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church could harm other denominations and branches of Orthodoxy in Russia.
In the city of Suzdal, the Autonomous Russian Orthodox Church is suing for the return of 10 churches it says were illegally transferred by the courts to the mainstream Church. And Jehovah's Witnesses say their members could face imprisonment for public distribution of their magazine, The Watchtower.
Concern is based on Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code, which prohibits incitement of national, racial, or religious enmity. Many consider the law to be vaguely written and a modern-day version of prohibitions against anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.
Yaroslav Sivulsky represents the Jehovah's Witnesses Executive Center in Russia. Sivulsky says there is increased pressure nationwide on Jehovah's Witnesses, with the onset of mass detentions, arrests, searches of homes, places of worship, and confiscation of religious literature.
A Central Asian refugees expert at Moscow's Human Rights Institute, Yelena Riabinina, says authorities are exploiting xenophobia and fears of terrorism through arbitrary portrayals of Muslims as radicals. Riabinina says if one considers the repression of people who did not plan, commit, or have any relation to violent acts, but whose version of Islam is not deemed tolerable by Russian authorities, then what you have is a clear case of religious persecution.
Sergei Mozgovoi says authorities do not persecute Buddhists outright, but use a carrot and stick approach to reward those loyal to the state and to keep others at bay. But he says the Kremlin prohibits visits by the Dalai Lama to avoid offending China. Mozgovoi says China and the Russian Orthodox Church constantly exchange experience about ways to pressure free thinkers and members of other faiths in a struggle against so-called sects.
In his Kremlin remarks Monday, Patriarch Kirill said the church-state education effort is aimed at creating an atmosphere of agreement to prevent national and religious hostility. But human-rights activists are calling for tolerance and repeal of government laws that appear to favor the Russian Orthodox Church.