Voice of Russia radio called me yesterday, asking for a comment about the Americans burning the Quran in Afghanistan, an action that generated mass protests in that Muslim country against the Americans. In the corky mood, I asked the radio producer: Why are you asking me about blasphemy by Americans in Afghanistan instead of the blasphemy by Russians in Russia? That’s covered by another program, I was told.
Fair enough. But it was easy for me yesterday to speak about Quran burning because I could well imagine how it feels for a Muslim. Probably not to the same degree because I know that the Quran is the holiest holy there is to a Muslim, but to some degree, I could.
There are many people today that say blasphemy is an outdated term, which has no space in the modern pluralistic society. There are those who don’t feel blasphemy because they have no feeling for what is holy. There are others for whom freedom of expression is the holiest holy and hence everyone who protests against the right to offend is offending their icon, freedom. But there are millions around us, and judging from Facebook comments, not only very religious people, who felt strongly offended and disturbed by what happened in Moscow.
For those who don’t know, a female group that is being described as punk feminist (whatever that may mean; I thought punk meant denial of ideology and feminism is an ideology of sorts) dressed in colorful clothing and masks, sneaked into Moscow’s main Christ the Savior Cathedral on Tuesday. There, right before the altar, they mocked a prayer service by bowing to the ground, singing the Orthodox equivalent of Ave Maria mixed with a song containing foul language and asking Our Lady to deliver Russia from Putin.
I will say right away: it has been some 36 hours since I watched their video on Youtube. And I still find it hard to calm my mood enough to say anything reasonable, without emotion, about this latest development. It was so disturbing and offensive to me and many of my friends of very differing degrees of religious devotion as well as to some agnostics.
Some people think it was directed against the Patriarch, who is supporting Putin’s electoral campaign. If so, why didn’t they go to protest outside the Patriarch’s residence? Instead they chose to protest outside the altar, mentioning Our Lady in their song. It is hard to explain this to those who believe that political or artistic expression is of paramount value, who believe that the right to criticize, the right to offend is important to upkeep other rights, including the right to believe. Others said it was part of the carnival, but carnival doesn’t take place inside churches either. Blasphemy, it turns out, is pointed directly at our hearts, and we feel the pain. That’s it.
Ever since the protests against the allegedly rigged parliamentary elections in Russia galvanized the civic and political life in the country, interesting processes started to take place within the Russian Orthodox Church.
I have written about it here. The gist of it is that, contrary to the image of the Russian Church being always on the side of the government, quite a few Orthodox Christians found themselves among the protesters, which is understandable since the protest has been mainly against lies and the theft of votes. The protests themselves have been value-based to a large extent.
When Patriarch Kirill returned to Russia after the first protests, his initial statements acknowledged the fact that there are Christians on both sides of the newly emerged political divide. He said so in his Christmas interview aired January 7, calling for truth both in the government and among the citizens and warned against revolutionary tendencies. It was balanced and in step with what the society mood was about.
But then the Patriarch changed the course. The reason remains a mystery. Pressure from the Kremlin comes to mind as a likely reason but we have no evidence of this and the Patriarch himself has not given an explanation yet. He spoke against the protest movement first on February 1, saying Christians should “pray in their rooms” and not go to rallies. Then, when Putin met with religious leaders on February 8, the Patriarch lavished praise on Putin and repeated many of his campaign clichés about how awful the 1990s were and how wealthy and stable Russia is now.
It was a major disappointment for those in the church, who sympathized with political reforms and a great relief for those, who were happy to return to the comfort of seeing the government in monarchist terms and remain wary of the liberals, among whom many harbor anti-Church sentiments. It was a disappointment for me too. But the ferment is still out there. A lot of Russians, who perhaps for the first time realized themselves as both citizens and Orthodox Christians, are presently making a serious effort to think about how to correlate their citizenry with their Christianity and whether it should be done in the context of a new democratic or traditional autocratic mentality. How does one oppose the government, if they’re an Orthodox Christian? Can it be done at all? Can there ever be a Christian democratic party in Russia? Are all oppositionists anti-Russian and, consequently, anti-Church and, consequently, anti-Christian? Is it ok to steal the votes if the Church would eventually benefit from it? These are all the questions people are thinking about. In a way, the profoundest, centuries old issues of the Orthodox Church’s attitude to the government and society are being reconsidered internally.
Enter the group of young women performing their stint literally on the Patriarch’s pulpit.
There is a very sad political effect from Tuesday’s action. I don’t want to sound too conspiratorial suggesting that it was the intent but I would not rule it out completely. The message, for some, including people with a moral authority in the church, is clear: political protesters “are” blasphemous.
How can Christians be on the same side politically with this outrage? Of course, they can’t and many people I know who sympathize with the protest movement, who are strongly anti-Putin, have spoken out on Facebook against the stunt, saying they were offended by this act of hooliganism! But it has become so easy now for the retrogrades to lump together the blasphemers with the political protesters, promoting, intentionally or unintentionally, the totally false and simplistic, but politically advantageous divide: those who are for God, Church, and Russia are for Putin and those who are against Putin, are insulting God, insulting us Christians, they are against God, Church and Russia.
Maybe I am exaggerating. But these self-proclaimed punk-feminists have done more in one day to slow down the Russian Orthodox Church’s adaptation to the realities of a pluralist society, to prevent it from playing a constructive role in forming the values of the Russian society of tomorrow, than any enemy of this process could have ever accomplished.
I remember a human rights activist from Pakistan nearly crying from the stage of a major international journalists gathering several years ago after the so-called “Mohammed cartoons scandal.” “You have ruined my entire life,” he told the publishers of the cartoons and their defenders, who were the vast majority of the audience. “After this, I can no longer defend human rights in Pakistan.”
In any way, it is an excellent example of that ongoing conflict of religious and secular in the public square. Should blasphemy become a criminal offence in Russia, as it is in Islamic and some Western countries (the latter in watered down antique laws from the Christian era)? The Moscow Patriarchate’s chief political liaison officer, the provocative Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin suggested just that on Wednesday. I don’t know. It is extremely difficult to define blasphemy in terms of secular law of a pluralistic country. But, as it is said in the fabled phrase about pornography, you know it when you see it. And disgusting it is – in Afghanistan, as well as in Russia.
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- wulfranoBlasphemy13:56, 24/02/2012Blasphemy against Our Lady will be dealt with harshly in the burning fires of eternal hell for those women bastards. As for the Koran... you should never burn it. You might need it someday if you run out of toilet paper.
- gunshipdemocracyseems Mr. Ahmadinejad IS right17:10, 25/02/2012the only sanctity in the west is zionism and copro h. business. Shame that amazingly huge amount of resources is going to fight Christinaity or Islam.
- wulfranoTruth12:40, 29/02/2012Truth is only One. The only holy book is the Bible (in English the Douay-Rheims). All other so-called holy books are human fabrications, therefore expendable.
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