Orthodox America

   Commentary Religious Liberty and Truth

Fr. Alexey Young

Under a startling headline, "Religion Returns to Russia, With a Vengeance," one news photo shows two thousand Russians being baptized into the sect of Jehovah's Witnesses. Another photo, equally disturbing, is of "a group of elderly Russian women, fingering their [Hindu] beads, listening to devotees of Hare Krishna in the center of Moscow."1

For some time now, Orthodox believers in the West, as well as those in Russia, have been troubled about the enormous influx of non-Orthodox religious movements and cults into Russia. Most of these church groups are made up of "well-funded foreigners practicing 'pocketbook evangelism' or more subtle forms of cash for conversion."2 And most of them unabashedly "preach that Russians must leave the Orthodox fold, or face eternal consequences."3  The arrogant assumption on the part of these missionaries has consistently been that "Russia is a vast spiritual wasteland, despite [her] one thousand year history of Orthodox Christianity."4

For some time, now, Russian Orthodox officials had been insisting that foreign church groups must at least try to deal with the Orthodox Church "as the bearer of Russian spiritual culture."5  Even so, it came as a surprise to most Western observers when, last July 14, Russian lawmakers passed an amendment to the 1990 Law on Freedom of Profession of Religion. The new legislation would require all "western and other foreigners...to solicit and receive government 'accreditation' " or licensing, in order to preach their religion in Russia.6 This legislation was specifically requested by the Patriarch of Moscow and (according to the Itar-Tass news agency) is also supported by the Muslim minority.

Although this restrictive measure has not been signed into law by President Boris Yeltsin, and probably will not be, the furor it has already caused, within and without Russia, bears some attention. While Westerners still have much to learn from the martyric struggle of Russian Orthodox Christians to preserve their faith during the long and terrible decades of the Soviet Yoke, is it possible that Orthodox authorities in Russia might have something positive to learn from the American experience of separation of Church and State?  What, in fact, are the pros and cons of this new legislation in Russia?

Arguments in favor:

1. In asking for this restrictive legislation, Patriarch Alexey II explained that he wants "' to bar from Russia all kinds of rather wealthy foreign religious organizations'...[because] the 'bold invasion' of these foreigners is helping to further destabilize the country."7

2. It has also been suggested that, given the ferocious persecution of the Church under communism, the least the government can do now, by way of making amends, is to create a level "playing-field" for the Church, which is otherwise severely handicapped by lack of funds to produce Orthodox missionary materials and buy more media air-time to compete with outside religious groups.  Western missionaries of all kinds seem to have an endless supply of money and materials.

3. In addition, the concept of strict separation of Church and State is unfamiliar to Russians, except in the abstract.  From the time of the Baptism of Rus' under St. Vladimir to the Revolution, Church and State operated very nearly as one, usually in symphony. Because of this long association, the Church was indeed the "carrier" and nurturer of national values and traditions, as well as the transmitter of the Faith.  Under communism, the government strictly controlled and "managed" the Church.

4. Finally, it can be asked: should error-in the form of non-Orthodox proselytizing from the West -have equal "rights" with Truth?  Or should Truth-Orthodox Christianity-be given special protection?   It was so in ancient Byzantium, as it was under the Tsars.

Arguments against:

1. Whether or not Western missionaries can really have a "destabilizing" effect on Russian is doubtful.  Most studies indicate that in this country of hundreds of millions there are only about 1,000 missionaries at the present time.  Patriarch Alexey's argument sounds self-serving and blatantly political.

2. While, on the face of it, it now seems "fair," after decades of persecution, for the government to give the Church an equal "playing-field" in the open marketplace of religious ideas, we must remember that the official Church under communism was often a conscious partner with the atheist state, cooperating in her own persecution. This was true even of the present Patriarch, whose former KGB associations are now known and documented, even inside Russia.

Also, it is ultimately God Who draws souls to Orthodoxy, not money or TV time. Fr. Gleb Yakunin, a priest and long-time critic of the Patriarchate and now a member of the Supreme Soviet, commented that this call for restrictive legislation "shows the [spiritual] bankruptcy of the Patriarch."8 As Alexander Nezhny, the journalist who was able to prove Patriarch Alexey's ties to the KGB, has observed: "All the diseases of the Church-its cozy situation, the priests protected by the government, depriving the priests of the opportunity to accept a spiritual challenge-were caused by its being an official Church.  It deprives the Church of fire."9

The fact is, however, that "the Russian Orthodox Church has not fared badly against the competition. With an estimated 60 million believers, and with more than 6,000 new churches and monasteries re-opened in the last three years, the Orthodox Church is still by far the largest Church in Russia.10

3. While it is true that in Orthodox Christian history the Church and State, "throne and altar", have often been closely united, this has not always been a felicitous "marriage" for the Church, even under the Tsars.

And it can be reasonably argued that the time for such close collaboration between government and state has now passed, having been decisively removed from the earth at the time of the Revolution; therefore it should not be resurrected in these, our perilous Last Times. As one priest of the patriarchate has wisely put it: "We must find more Americans who are willing to work with us and who recognize the symbolic role that Russian Orthodoxy has played in this culture....But we also must find more Orthodox leaders who realize that we cannot return to the past.  We must learn to work with others....Our nation has changed and it will change even more in the future. We cannot stop this."11

4. In an ideal world-viz., one that is not "fallen"-falsehood of any kind, especially religious error, would not find protection under the law.  In this real and fallen world, however, absolute Truth is relatively protected by the same concept of human rights, the same laws that protect the enemy of truth. This is the experience of the American separation of Church and State which, while today it seems to favor an agnostic approach to life, nonetheless does not give unfair advantage to any one religious group, church, or synagogue.  Fr. Gleb says that the Patriarch's request for special church status "is aimed against Protestants and Catholics who are gaining influence in Russia"12, but clearly it could also be used even against other Orthodox groups (such as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad) and, ultimately, "will logically lead to governmental censorship of religious literature published abroad."13

It is time for the Moscow Patriarchate to "grow up", stop whining like a spoiled child demanding special favors that it has not earned, and roll up its sleeves and get to work-on street corners, if necessary!-proclaiming the unadulterated word of God. When Russians say that in parish churches "people are wandering around praying to icons....It's impossible to understand the priests; you don't feel welcome"14, we must ask: Whose fault is this?  The fault of "foreign missionaries", or the fault of the Church herself?

Fr. Alexey Young

1. Schmemann, Serge, "Religion Returns to Russia, With a Vengeance," The New York Times International/National, July 28, 1993. 
2. Mattingly, Terry, "Maintaining Orthodoxy," The Lowell Sun. 
3. Ibid. 
4. Schmemann, op. cit.
5.  Ibid. 
6. Dahlburg, John-Thor, "Russian Law Curbs Foreigner Preaching, Seeking Converts," L. A. Times, July 15, 1993.  
7. Seplow, Stephen, "Russian Clergy Guarding Their Orthodoxy," The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23, 1993. 
8. Ibid. 
9. Ibid. 
10. Schmemann, op. cit. 
11.  Quoted in Mattingly, op. cit. 
12. Seplow, op. cit. 
13. Ibid. 
14. Schmemann, op. cit.