This year’s Christmas, which according to the ancient Julian calendar falls in the Russian Orthodox Church on January 7, was full of important messages, including the church’s elaborated position on the tense political situation in the country following the December parliamentary elections and the ensuing mass protests against alleged electoral fraud.
It is customary for the ruling bishops, including the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, to address their flock on the day of the Nativity of Christ by issuing an epistle. In the past, this message usually combined a sermon with a report on the patriarch’s official activities over the year. But this year the epistle, released several days before Christmas and read out loud in all churches, including in a televised broadcast of the patriarch’s service in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, touched on several radically new issues that have never before been included in the church’s official proclamations.
Firstly, Patriarch Kirill broached, along with traditional theological and moral discourse, a new topic of solidarity with Christians in the Middle East. “Today the followers of Christ in countries where the events of holy history took place are going through uneasy trials and confronting new threats to the spiritual tradition that stretches back for centuries,” the message said. Following the de facto persecution of an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, the climate of fear surrounding ancient Christian communities in Egypt and Syria and decades of dwindling Arab Christian populations in Israel and Palestine, international solidarity has been raised to the top of the church’s foreign policy agenda. This fact is underscored by the patriarch’s visit to Syria and Lebanon and a high-level conference in Moscow late last year. As if to confirm the acuteness of the issue, on Christmas news came from Israel that Gabriel Cadis, the chairman of the Orthodox Christian Association of Jaffa, now an area of Tel Aviv, was stabbed to death on his way home from the Christmas Eve procession. The incident was widely discussed by Orthodox Christians in the blogosphere.
In the same epistle the patriarch briefly touched upon the hot issue of migration, which involves mostly Muslims from the periphery of the former Russian Empire and foments racist sentiment among many Russians. Along with the weak and sick ones, to whom Christians should turn their attention, he said that those “who abandoned their native places due to economic difficulties in search of earnings, often finding themselves in an unfriendly environment” also need care.
Yet it was the statement concerning the political situation in the country that generated the greatest response in the media and on social networks. In a radio interview a day before Christmas, the senior church official in charge of relations with political and public organizations Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin offered the church’s services as a mediator between the government and the protesters. He said the authorities could be “slowly eaten alive” if they do not listen to the demands of the people. Yet like Alexei Navalny, one of the protest leaders and an anti-corruption crusader, Chaplin emphasized the nationalist streak among some of the protesters. In his typically provocative manner, Chaplin suggested that the “net hamsters” – a derogatory Russian term for Internet users – should be enlisted in the army and sent to active combat zones so that they would turn into “real people” – a comment that earned Chaplin further notoriety in the blogosphere.
But on Christmas Day the national Rossia One state television channel aired a long interview with Patriarch Kirill, who gave a more balanced and explicit overview of the church’s position on the political situation in the country. Speaking to a much bigger television audience than before, he recognized the people’s right to protest peacefully, and elaborated on his call for the authorities to listen to the voice of the people, while warning against revolutionary sentiments. “It is a very sensitive issue for the church, because our parishioners are both among those who were in the square [protesting] and among those against whom the square spoke out,” he said. “That is why the voice of the church has to bear the truth, which can be accepted by everybody.”
Referring to one of the main underpinnings of the mass protests against allegedly stolen elections, the patriarch said that “lies have to leave our lives – both political, economic, social and private. Were there not among the protesters those who are cheating on their husbands or wives, who lead a double life, who are unscrupulous in business?” Truth, he said, has to apply to all levels of activity.
He recalled the mass protests preceding the 1917 Revolution and said that if they had not turned into the bloodshed of Civil War, Russia would have been the world’s most prosperous country today. “The goal is for the protests, expressed in the right way, to lead to a correction of the political course,” he said. “If the authorities remain insensitive to the protests, it is a very bad sign… The authorities have to learn, just like the church is learning now, to decipher the external signals and correct the course. That is my main message to the authorities and to the people.”
The patriarch reiterated that Russia “has exceeded its limit of division and revolutionary change,” and called on the protesters “not to let themselves be provoked and destroy the country.” He predictably refused to say whom he would like to see as Russia’s next president, saying only that the leader should ideally combine the qualities of the 13th century military leader and diplomat Prince Alexander Nevsky and early 20th century authoritarian reformer Pyotr Stolypin, while emphasizing the importance of justice as a core value. “For our people justice is an incredibly important dimension of life,” he said. “If the system of justice is broken, society becomes shaky. Every ruler has to keep that in mind.” He also said that the new emphasis on parish activities in the church is meant, in part, to turn Orthodox Christian communities into civil society institutions that can help people resist corruption and other forms of injustice.
One of the leaders of the protests, politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, posted a link to the patriarch’s interview in his Facebook account, which has thousands of followers, and said that the statement is important because it shows that the church itself is reacting to the protests. Until recently, many saw the church as a staunch ally of the Kremlin, particularly in the liberal circles.
The Chief Editor of the Russian Journal online magazine and political commentator Alexander Morozov said that the patriarch’s interview is important because the church endorses the people’s right to protest. Morozov recalled that in the year 2000, when the Russian Orthodox Church was adopting its social doctrine, it was Metropolitan Kirill who insisted on including in it the right to civil disobedience, despite objections from the Presidential Administration at the time. “The second important aspect is in reminding us about the church's position in 1993 [during the armed conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and the Communist-dominated Supreme Soviet]. It thus marks the church’s position in case of a negative scenario of a civil conflict,” Morozov said. “The church will act as a mediator and will not take anyone’s side, because the patriarch said out right that there are children of the church on both sides of the divide.”
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