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What's Wrong With The Russian Orthodox Church?

Op-Ed: The Russian Orthodox Church seems more concerned about criticism of its top leaders than about physical attacks on its clergy. Is it suffering a post-Soviet identity crisis?

Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos, Moscow (Lodo27)
Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos, Moscow (Lodo27)
Vladimir Tikhomirov

MOSCOW - It has not been a good couple of months for the Russian Orthodox Church.

A protest concert held, without permission, by a female punk band in February started a much broader national discussion about the role of the Church in public life -- and the Church has not come out looking so good.

The Russian Orthodox Church has amassed wealth and substantial political clout in the past decades. Its cozy relationship with the Kremlin came under fire during protests against Vladimir Putin's candidacy for a third term as president, especially when the Church endorsed his candidacy.

Most recently, the controversy caught fire when, in early April, the Church photoshopped a snapshot of the Patriarch Kirill I to erase a wristwatch on his arm thought to be worth at least $30,000. When bloggers discovered the doctored photo, critics of the Church erupted on the web.

On April 22, the Church tried to fight back. Some 65,000 people attended a service called "for the defense of faith" at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The stated reason for the service was two recent acts of vandalism in Orthodox churches.

The first act of vandalism happened in a small town in northwestern Russia on March 6. A 36-year-old man who was already under observation at a psychiatric hospital destroyed approximately 30 Orthodox icons in the local cathedral (Church spokespeople equated the fate of the desecrated icons to that of the Our Lady of Kazan icon, a famous icon that was destroyed by Bolsheviks). Then, on March 20, a 22-year-old man who was high on drugs in a small city in southern Russia broke into a cathedral. Once inside, he stripped off his clothes, approached the altar and stabbed the cross.

But were these isolated incidents the real reason Church officials felt compelled to rush to their own defense? It's clear that the Russian Orthodox church has lived through far worse in recent history: the forceful seizure of places of worship, robberies and attacks on, even the killing of, priests.

Priestly risk

Father Yoann Vlasov was brutally attacked last June in central Moscow while on his way to a Sunday service, but still managed to record a video of the attack on his cell phone. Last year another priest in a town near Moscow was attacked for speaking out against what he considered excessive drinking among the local people. There have been at least two other attacks on clergy members in the past year.

It turns out that after decades of Soviet repression, execution of priests and restrictive KGB sanctions, the biggest threat to the Russian Orthodox Church is criticism from a couple of bloggers and the mass media.

This is after two decades of enormous growth in the Russian Orthodox Church. Just consider: in those two decades, thousands of places of worship were returned to the Church, and the number of people who have been baptized also increased substantially. Schools even teach basic religion courses now.

But now there is a quality problem. In a recent interview, Father Georgii Mitrofanov talked about the problems that still lie ahead for the Russian Orthodox Church. One of them is the soulless mentality of consumerism that most ‘believers' have towards religion. According to a recent study, a third of those who consider themselves Russian Orthodox do not even know the Ten Commandments.

The ignorance and professional incompetence extends even to the clergy themselves. The Church also lacks the resources to properly keep up the many buildings it now owns.

And then, there is also a major image problem. During the interview, Father Mitrofanov put it this way: "Orthodox belief is no longer understood as a belief in Christ, but as a totalitarian ideology, that mixes nationalistic ideas with zero-tolerance for internal and external critics, and a need to feel like a part of a powerful community."

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photo - Lodo27

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