After decades of suppression, the Russian Orthodox Church appears to be back in favour with the country’s leadership.
Moscow, Russia – “The Holiest” is the term one has to use when addressing Kirill, Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch.
A namesake to the Byzantine monk who brought Christianity to Slavs, Kirill heads the Moscow Patriarchate, the most powerful of more than a dozen Orthodox Churches scattered from Egypt to Romania. His church claims more than 100 million people in Russia and former Soviet republics as its flock, although polls show only a fraction are observant Christians.
In late January, for the first time in the millennium-old history of Russian Christianity, Kirill addressed the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in a speech that used to be a presidential prerogative. The address epitomised his church’s post-Soviet efforts to boost its clout in Russia’s politics, economy and even education.
These efforts have long been criticised as increasingly isolationist, ultra-conservative and contradictory to the constitutional division of religion and state. Russia is home to sizable Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish minorities, a handful of other Christian denominations and tiny groups of pagans that often feel threatened by the church’s aggressive agenda.
Kirill, white-bearded and bespectacled, clad in a black monk’s robe and a white cowl topped with a golden cross, started his Duma speech by lambasting western liberalism, same-sex marriages, legalisation of euthanasia and other “pseudo-values” that are being “propagated in and even imposed on Russia”.
Kirill praised what he called the “Russian civilisation” rooted in the religious and political principles adopted from the Byzantine Empire. Comparing this “civilisation” to today’s West, he claimed the latter is doomed.
“The idea of absolute value and priority of freedom, the freedom of choice, and the refusal from the priority of ethical standards have become some sort of a time bomb for western civilisation,” Kirill said.
Kirill also offered his views on a kaleidoscope of topics that included statehood, ethics, family values and Russia’s plunging birth rates. He called on the lawmakers to ban free abortions at government health clinics. He urged them to increase the number of public school lessons on the Orthodox doctrine, provide state funding for Orthodox colleges, and include theology in the list of scientific disciplines.
The lawmakers gave him a standing ovation.
But insiders and analysts say Kirill’s widely publicised address failed to mention the real problems Russia is facing, and its main purpose was to demonstrate his loyalty to the Kremlin.
“He’s got nothing to say about his own country and those who rule it,” Deacon Andrey Kurayev, an outspoken Orthodox theologian, told Al Jazeera.
To a prominent political analyst, Kirill’s address signified his church’s total submission to the government – even if it meant estranging its own flock.
“The church has finally transformed itself into an appendage of the state’s politico-ideological machine,” Stanislav Belkovsky wrote in an op-ed published in the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily. “Instead, the church has rejected its mission of being the Russian people’s spiritual guide – for such a mission cannot be entrusted to any part of the bureaucratic machine.”
The idea of absolute value and priority of freedom, the freedom of choice, and the refusal from the priority of ethical standards have become some sort of a time bomb for Western civilisation.
In early January, Kirill appeared on national television to deny the obvious. Without blinking an eye, he urged Russians to ignore the plunging rouble and the devastating effects of falling oil prices, and western sanctions on the country’s economy.
“I am deeply convinced that the exchange rate’s fluctuations cannot radically influence the prosperity of most of Russians,” Kirill said in a television interview with Dmitri Kiselyov, an odious media official known for his hosannas to President Vladimir Putin and threats to turn the US into “radioactive ashes”.
Most Russians would disagree – almost 80 percent said in late December that the country is “facing a crisis”, and 37 percent started spending less on food, independent pollster Levada Centre said.
Meanwhile, the church’s main spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, sent a letter to five regional governors urging them to create a system of “usury-free” Orthodox banks. He reportedly said the system – inspired by Islamic banks – will “make the global economy run according to our own rules”.
Orthodox banks “will have direct relations with China, the Islamic world, other centres of influence” bypassing the western financial system that “increasingly shows its unfriendliness”, Chaplin told the Itar Tass news agency.
An analyst on the Patriarchate’s finances said the initiative reflects the dire situation with the church-controlled banks affected by government regulation. One of them, Sofrino, was declared bankrupt and stripped of its license by Russia’s Central Bank in June.
“Apparently, things are pretty bad – they mostly control smaller banks that are now suffering,” Nikolai Mitrokhin, guest researcher at the Institute for Human Science in Vienna, told Al Jazeera.
A business empire
The Sofrino bank was part of the church’s vast business empire that resembles a feudal state with “absolutely non-transparent” finances, said Mitrokhin. It is “a shadow market of exchanging power for cash”, where each cleric and hierarch uses his connections to makes deals with authorities in his parish, he said.
“An annual turnover of finances that go through church cashiers or the priests’ pockets amount to tens of millions of dollars, while church-controlled [financial] structures operate with billions of dollars a year,” Mitrokhin wrote in his 2004 book.
Each parish, monastery, priest and bishop – let alone the Patriarchy and its departments – develop their own business projects that range from unlicensed sale of golden jewellery to massive tobacco imports – on top of standard “services” such as baptisms, weddings and funeral wakes that are paid for in cash only, Mitrokhin wrote.
The church builds shopping malls and hotels, bottles “holy” water, owns publishing houses and produces jewellery – some of which is allegedly counterfeit – while Kirill’s own assets allegedly amount to $4bn, according to a 2006 investigative report by the Moskovskie Novosti daily.
The church has repeatedly denied most of the allegations, but Kirill admitted his role in the tobacco business.
Restitution of church property
At a 2010 ceremony held in a glistening church inside the Kremlin, then-president Dmitri Medvedev told Kirill that he signed into law a restitution of “religious property” – buildings, land, icons and utensils expropriated after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution – including the 14th century chapel the leaders were in.
|Orthodox Church corruption?|
The church now owns real estate worth billions of dollars. Some of it, however, never belonged to it, because countless churches, chapels and religious works of art were privately owned.
In many cases, restitution requires eviction of previous occupants – kindergartens, museums, concert halls, a cartoon studio and a kernel for police dogs in Moscow.
Limos, watches and dust
Meanwhile, the Holiest Patriarch unashamedly displays a penchant for luxury. He flies a personal jet and rides around in a custom-made limousine with a flashing blue light that allows him to ignore traffic rules – when traffic policemen don’t block the streets for his cortege.
During his 2009 speech in Ukraine about “Christian ascetics”, he sported a 30,000 euro ($34,000) Breguet watch. His press service said later the watch would be sold to finance a charity.
In 2012, a Moscow court ordered an ex-health minister to pay some $700,000 in compensation for the dust stirred up by renovation work in his apartment that settled on the books and furniture of his neighbour, Kirill.
structures operate with billions of dollars a year.”]
Kirill’s critics often cite late Serbian Patriarch Pavel who lived an ascetic life, mended his own shoes and clothes, and took a tram to work.
The church is also known for punishing its foes, present or past.
Its activists – including militant Orthodox Banner Bearers whose black uniforms are adorned with a skull-and-bones logo and a motto reading “Orthodoxy or Death” – have attacked gay and opposition rallies, supporters of the Pussy Riot punk band, protested Russian shows by Madonna and Lady Gaga, and burned Harry Potter books.
It has excommunicated Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and former lawmaker who headed a government commission that concluded in 1992 that most of the top clerics, including future Patriarch Kirill, were Soviet-era KGB informers. After the excommunication, Yakunin joined a splinter Orthodox group, and repeatedly called the Moscow Patriarchate the “Orthodox Taliban”.
The church has also refused to lift its 1901 excommunication of novelist Leo Tolstoy, who penned unorthodox translations of the Gospel, and derided the church’s corruption and submission to the czars.
To some, the submission only got worse – the church now hails Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who purged and killed millions of believers – but restored the Moscow Patriarchate and installed a patriarch who praised and prayed for the atheist regime.
After all, Kirill’s parliament speech addressed just one person – whose rule the patriarch has called “a God’s miracle”. But Putin will heed his pleas about a bigger role for his church only “if he wants to”, analyst Mitrokhin said.
“He is not very willing to support most of Kirill’s initiatives,” he said.