Putin's Reunited Russian Church

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The Russian Orthodox Church was torn in two by revolution and regicide, by the enmity between communism and capitalism, nearly a century of fulmination and hatred. That all formally ended on Thursday in Moscow. Thousands of the Russian Orthodox faithful — including several hundred who flew in from New York — lined up under heavy rain to get into the Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. There, they witnessed the restoration of the "Canonical Communion and Reunification" of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which claims more than 70 million adherents, and the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR), which is believed to be 1.5 million strong. Many among the clergy and laity wept at the end of the 86 year-old schism brought about by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and the ensuing murder of the dethroned Tsar and the forced emigration of hundred thousands Russians defeated in Civil war. While the sumptuous ritual was clearly an emotional and pious event, the reunification has political resonance as well because the Russian Orthodox Church is increasingly a symbol and projection of Russian nationalism.

Indeed, rather than first give thanks to God in his speech, the head of the ROC, Patriarch Alexy, paid homage to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Patriarch emphasized that the reunification could happen only because the ROCOR saw in Putin "a genuine Russian Orthodox human being." Putin responded in his speech that the reunification was a major event for the entire nation.

Nationalism, based on the Orthodox faith, has been emerging as the Putin regime's major ideological resource. Thursday's rite sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state's main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument. In February press conference, Putin equated Russia's "traditional confessions" to its nuclear shield, both, he said, being "components that strengthen Russian statehood and create necessary preconditions for internal and external security of the country." Professor Sergei Filatov, a top authority on Russian religious affairs notes that "traditional confessions" is the state's shorthand for the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Church's assertiveness and presence is growing — with little separation from the State. The Moscow City Court and the Prosecutor General's Office maintain Orthodox chapels on their premises. Only the Orthodox clergy are entitled to give ecclesiastic guidance to the military. Some provinces have included Russian Orthodox Culture classes in school curricula with students doing church chores. When Orthodox fundamentalists vandalized an art exhibition at the Moscow Andrei Sakharov Center as "an insult to the main religion of our country," the Moscow Court found the Center managers guilty of insulting the faith, and fined them $3,500 each. The ROC had an opera, based on a famous fairy tale by the poet Alexander Pushkin, censored to the point of cutting out the priest, who is the tale's main protagonist. "Of course, we have a separation of State and Church," Putin said during a visit to a Russian Orthodox monastery in January 2004. "But in the people's soul they're together." The resurgence of a Church in open disdain of the secular Constitution is only likely to exacerbate divisions in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russia.

The ROCOR's American clergy insist that they retain administrative independence over their churches even as they recognize the Moscow Patriarch as their Head. Filatov says that the ROCOR has "about as much [independence] as Eastern Europe's 'people's democracies' had in the Soviet bloc." One of the first tests of the new union will be in the Holy Land, where the ROCOR maintains religious properties — and has had run-ins with representatives of the Moscow patriarchate in the past. In 1997, for example, Yasser Arafat forcibly turned over the only Christian church in Hebron, run by the ROCOR, to the ROC. (That church includes the site where the Bible says Abraham met three angels.) The American-based Church still controls St. Mary Magdalene, with its seven gilded onion domes and Muscovite facade, one of the most prominent churches in Jerusalem because of its commanding spot on the slopes of the Mount of Olives above the garden of Gethsemane. The ROCOR also has a convent on the summit of the Mount of Olives, a monastery in the Judaean desert founded by a hermit in the third century, and one chapel in Jericho and another on the Jordan river. The Reunification deal says that the administration of these properties will not change. But some observers remain skeptical.

With a reunited Russian Orthodox Church, Putin is pushing Russia's dominance in the global Orthodox movement, the traditional Orthodox leadership is vested in the Patriarch of Constantinople, in a first among equals style rather than the dominant Papal regime of the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox communion includes churches in Greece, Cyprus, Ukraine, Belarus and various Balkan states as well as Georgia, Armenia and Moldova. Historically, the Russian Orthodox Church has always pressed its pre-eminence among these nations and is likely to do so again. Putin's new unified Church will also further expand in the U.S. and Western Europe as it tries to use the ROCOR's network and congregation to become as much an arm of Russian nationalist politics as well as Russian piety. With Reporting by Andrew Lee Butters/Jerusalem