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Friday, September 14, 2007

You Can't Fool All of the Faithful all of the Time

The Moscow Times reports on pockets of resistance to the growing centralized stranglehold of the Holy Neo-Soviet Empire:

BUENA, New Jersey. In this wooded corner of New Jersey under the golden onion-shaped domes of a Russian Orthodox church where slender candles light up a wall of religious icons, the Cold War lives on. A small group of worshipers gathered on a recent Sunday at the Sviato-Pokrovskiy Russian Orthodox Church for what may be one of their last services. The tiny congregation is facing eviction because they disagree with a decision by their parent church, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, to reconcile with the Moscow Patriarchate in Russia. The decision to reconcile was abhorrent to the worshipers, who revile the Moscow church for its cooperation with the Soviets years ago and for its close ties with the Russian government today.

"This was seen as just a Soviet church, a man-made arm of the government," said Maria Nekludoff, 56, whose father was the longtime priest at the Buena church before his death in 2004. "I just don't understand how suddenly this became 'the mother church,' and we need to unite with it. It just doesn't make any sense to me." Adelaida Nekludoff, Maria Nekludoff's 83-year-old mother, from Ukraine, dismissed the legitimacy of the Moscow church with a shake of her head, "It's not a church." The Sviato-Pokrovskiy church was established in 1957 as part of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, an extensive network of churches created after the Bolshevik Revolution by people who had fled the Soviet Union and shared a central belief that communism was evil. The Soviet Union, in an effort to destroy the religious soul of the country, which had been mostly Orthodox for hundreds of years, slaughtered thousands of priests and parishioners and destroyed churches across the country.

What they could not eradicate, they tried to co-opt, often by forcing priests to support communism and report to the KGB secret police about members of their congregations. Many believers who survived the purges fled the Soviet Union and made their way to the United States. For decades, worshipers at the Buena church, and other exile churches around the world, practiced their faith and preached against communism. But the fear of persecution was never far away. The elaborate iconostasis, a central part of any Russian Orthodox church holding paintings of saints, was built so it could be taken down in an hour if they had to flee. The church walls were left bare of murals since they were often painted over in churches in the Soviet Union.

With the Soviet collapse, it might have seemed natural for the schism to heal. But for a long time it did not. Then, last year, the Church Abroad announced that it had decided to reconcile with the Moscow church. In May, a ceremony in Moscow celebrated the healing of the 80-year rift. It was attended by President Vladimir Putin, who lobbied heavily for the reconciliation. A delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church is currently touring the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe to celebrate the reconciliation.

But for many worshipers like those in Buena, the Moscow church is still considered to be riddled with people they feel collaborated with the Soviet government and has never truly atoned for its sins. There is also a worry that the Moscow church is too closely aligned with the government, which they feel is sugarcoating communism to revive Russians' pride in the Soviet-era history.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, Alexei Timofeyev, said the unification was something desired by all Russians -- both in and out of the country. Although there is no official count of how many parishes or parishioners have left the Church Abroad, priests and worshipers say it has driven apart churches, priests -- even families. "Husband and wives, mothers and sons, everybody has been divided. It is a very big tragedy," said Bishop Vladimir Tselichtchev, 41, who led the recent Sunday service.

Many Russian Orthodox churches and worshipers are following the Buena lawsuit closely to see what effect it may have on their own situation. Father Stefan Sabelnik, who has led the Trenton-based Assumption of Holy Virgin Church, said that after it became apparent that the Church Abroad would reconcile with Moscow, his parish of about 40 people sent a letter saying they were breaking away and asking to be left alone. "Maybe the Cold War is not the same but it's not over," Sabelnik said.

Nicholas Ohotin, a spokesman for the Church Abroad, said people were allowed to leave the church but that they could not take church property with them. Ohotin said the agreement with the Moscow church allows for a "very broad independence," and Orthodox believers should not fear they will be subject to Moscow's rule. "The church hopes that all of its parishioners, any of its members that left the church do find their way back to the bosom of the church," Ohotin said.

That is not very likely, said Maria Nekludoff, who grew up attending the Buena church and whose father, uncle, brother and grandmother are buried in its well-tended cemetery. She said her parents and parishioners put their life into building up the church."That would break my heart to see that basically their life's work was taken away," she said. "I feel blessed that I was able to defend these people who were defenseless. ... I felt it was my duty."

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