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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Annals of the Holy Russian Empire: Now, the Lynchmobs

The Moscow Times reports:

David Perov's first day of school was almost his last. The 7-year-old boy [pictured] was punched, kicked and taunted by other first graders after he refused to participate in an Orthodox service to open the school year, he and his parents said. Prosecutors have determined that Voronezh School No. 3 violated the boy's religious rights by holding the service, and his parents are now suing the public school in court. "We just want to prevent something like this from happening to another child," Alexei Perov, the boy's father and pastor of the local Community of Christ church, said in a telephone interview.

David Perov's story exposes a darker side to the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has seen a revival under President Vladimir Putin, a professed believer. Although the Constitution envisions the separation of church and state, Orthodoxy has made huge inroads since the Soviet collapse, with Putin attending services with church leaders, priests being called to bless factories, airplanes and even power turbines, and lessons on church culture being taught in some public schools.

The church says it has public support for its activities. Indeed, 75 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians, even though only 10 percent of them attend church and observe Orthodox traditions, according to a recent survey by state-controlled VTsIOM.

For many people, being Orthodox is akin to being Russian, said Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer and head of the Slavic Legal Center, an interfaith organization founded in 1992 to help safeguard the rights of believers in the former Soviet Union.

David Perov's troubles started when a local Orthodox priest, Alexander Muraviyev, arrived to conduct the service for the first graders on Sept. 3. The boy did not know how to behave during the service, said Alexei Perov, who is raising his son in the Community of Christ, a church with headquarters in Independence, Missouri, that claims 250,000 members worldwide and traces its roots back to Mormon founder Joseph Smith. The first graders' Orthodox service included prayers and incense burning while the children crossed themselves, said the school's principal, Tatyana Zhukova. At the end, the children were given a cross to kiss, she said. "I did not want to kiss the cross," David Perov said by telephone. He said several boys hit him and called him "fanatic" in a playroom after the service. "

The teacher saw that they were beating me but said nothing," he said.

When boy's mother, Galina Perova, came to pick him up, she found him hiding in the bathroom, she said. "I asked the teacher what had happened, but she told me, 'Nothing,'" she said. Back at home, her son tearfully told her that he would never go to school again. The parents complained to the local prosecutor's office, and prosecutors agreed that the school had broken two laws, on religious freedom and education, prosecutor Alexander Bykanov wrote in an official letter to Alexei Perov on Oct. 8. Zhukova, the principal, said the school had done nothing wrong. "We did receive a note from the prosecutor's office, but we deny that anything bad was done to the child," she said. "We did not know that the boy was of a different faith." Muraviyev, the priest, said by telephone that he had not known that a non-Orthodox boy was in the class. Later in the interview, though, he acknowledged that he had been told about the boy when he arrived at the school that day. His son was among the first graders. Asked about David Perov being abused by his classmates, he said, "Nothing of the sort happened." Muraviyev said he had been invited to conduct the service by the teacher and parents.

Voronezh region's top education official, Georgy Zvorygin, said in a letter to Alexei Perov on Sept. 20 that the decision to hold the service had been made at a parents' meeting. Zvorygin, like education officials in several other regions, has a special arrangement with the Orthodox Church, under which many schools offer a class titled "The Foundation of Orthodox Culture." The classes -- which the church insists teaches only culture, not doctrine -- are permitted under a law that allows each region to set its own policy on whether religious classes are taught in their schools. A total of 12 regions now offer "The Foundation of Orthodox Culture" class, according to a Public Chamber survey.

Human rights activists, however, warn that the class can encourage xenophobia. "It was just a bad idea to impose these lessons in a region where 17 different nationalities live," said Olga Gnezdilova, a lawyer with Chernozemiye, a human rights organization in Voronezh, who is advising the Perovs.

The State Duma is considering an amendment to close the legal loophole through which the Orthodox classes were introduced. Facing opposition from the church, however, Duma deputies have watered down the amendment to allow individual schools to determine their own curriculum by "taking into account regional or national particularities, the type of school, educational requirements and students' requests," said Stepan Medvedko, an adviser to the Duma's Public and Religious Organizations Committee.

Orthodox activists, meanwhile, have collected more than 100,000 signatures in favor of requiring all schoolchildren to take Orthodox classes, said Vadim Kvyatkovsky, the Moscow leader of a church youth organization. Kvyatkovsky, speaking to reporters earlier this month, said the petition aimed to influence the authorities and "to show the opinion of the majority" after 10 prominent academics sent an open letter to President Vladimir Putin criticizing the Orthodox class in public schools and the "growing clericalization" of society. The church's main spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, said that dropping the class would violate the rights of Orthodox children. "We have a majority of Orthodox children in this country, and we should respect their rights," Chaplin said by telephone. "In Belgorod, for instance, there are thousands of children who study Orthodox culture at school and there is no problem. As far as I know, only about 60 children have refused to attend these lessons."

Belgorod has more schools offering the Orthodox class than any other region, creating such an outcry that Putin addressed the issue during a visit there in September. "We have to find a form acceptable for all of society," Putin said. He stopped short of calling for the classes to be scaled back. The head of the federal ombudsman's religious freedom office, Mikhail Odintsov, said he had been flooded with letters from parents complaining about their children being forced to take Orthodox classes. "The class should not be compulsory because that would be a violation of the law," he said at a news conference on Oct. 4, Interfax reported. A Voronezh court is now being asked to award damages to David Perov for his ordeal. Alexei Perov filed a lawsuit seeking 41,000 rubles ($1,640) from School No. 3 this month. "This is not a considerable amount, but those found guilty in the case would be punished financially at least," said Gnezdilova, the lawyer. The school principal accused David Perov's parents of exaggerating the incident and accused the Community of Christ of stirring up trouble. "I guess that his parents got a lot of money from their American religious sponsors to start this scandal," Zhukova said.

A senior Community of Christ official said the only money sent to Alexei Perov was "a very small monthly amount from the church for his expenses as pastor." "Neither the Community of Christ nor any of our ministers have ever suggested to Alexis anything about this case," said Leonard Young, supervising minister of the Community of Christ's Europe church. "We are a church that promotes peace, reconciliation and cultural understanding and certainly would not seek to cause any problems in [Voronezh]." Chaplin, the Orthodox church spokesman, said he stood by the school. "The teachers said nothing wrong was done to the boy, and I believe them," he said. "It is only the boy's father who says his son was beaten. I don't think the children would beat another child immediately after the service."

David Perov eventually returned to School No. 3, although he was placed in a class with a different teacher. He said he liked his studies, but that he was afraid that the priest might come back one day.


Artfldgr said...

The Orthodox Church's long history of validating state policy goes back to the Czarist period. Though the church consistently backed the state under communism, it clearly did so under duress and the threat of increased persecution. The accession of Mikhail Gorbachev 16 years ago freed the church from coercion. Its current alliance with Putin is voluntary.

"Powerful and sovereign, reign for glory, reign for terror to enemies, Orthodox Czar, God save the Czar!" The new Russian national anthem (to the old Soviet tune) goes, "You are unique in the world, inimitable, native land protected by God!" The author of the new words is the same Sergei

The hated provision of mandatory registration was reestablished, with advantage conferred on those bodies which had legally existed during the Brezhnev period. This discriminates not only against such groups as the Salvation Army and the Jehovah's Witnesses but even against the Catholics, whose only official presence at that time had been one church in Moscow. While all this was going on, Yeltsin was appearing in church at major festival times and inviting Patriarch Alexsy II to bless the great occasions of state. Putin has no interest in revising this law. A move to repeal it will arise only if enforcement becomes brutal. Until then, we can expect messy and confused local wrangles about registration, about the return of former church property and about the presence of foreign missionaries.

The Orthodox Church's willingness to enlist the state on its behalf, and in turn to offer sacral endorsement of the state's policies, has deep psychological and historical roots. It is impossible for the outsider to understand the depth of the humiliation endured by the church during the 70 years of its captivity under communism. After exerting influence on state affairs under Czarist rule, the church found itself overnight banished from public life, its property confiscated, its worship repressed, and its role in the educational system ended. Most of its hierarchy, as well as thousands of parish clergy, monks and nuns lost their liberty, and many lost their lives. Only those willing to submit to the state survived.

The KGB archives, opened fleetingly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, proved what many Russians had known but few in the West had believed: that the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church were often forced to carry out the specific instructions of the more nefarious organs of state. Only those who toed the line were appointed to positions of authority. Many of the best priests could not even secure places in the three theological seminaries. "Spiritual formation," therefore, included being malleable enough to become, if not a KGB agent, someone ready to do the state's bidding. When the reversal of fortune came in 1997, the urge to recapture the privileges of an established church was overwhelming.

PUTIN NEEDS the church to legitimate his policies. Yeltsin had struggled at personal cost to free himself from his communist past, and he fought on the front line of democracy. Putin has no such record. Therefore his embrace of the church in general and of its hierarchy in particular is part of a self-protective policy to accord himself added legitimacy.

KGB material in the Estonian archives leaves no doubt about the patriarch's connections with the KGB. It even gives a specific date for his recruitment: February 28, 1958. He received the code name "Drozdov." The Estonian document, signed by a Colonel I. P. Karpov, head of the KGB in the republic, states: "During the period of collaboration with the organs of the KGB `Drozdov' positively recommended himself. During secret rendezvous he was punctilious, energetic and convivial. He is well-orientated in theoretical questions of theology and the international situation. He has a willing attitude to the fulfillment of our tasks and has already provided materials deserving attention."

The most notable center of opposition was the Solovki monastery-prison on an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean which had become virtually a death camp for the clergy and intellectuals of Czarist Russia. It prompted Alexander Solzhenitsyn's title, The Gulag Archipelago, for his history of the Soviet prison-camp system, which was dispersed around the U.S.S.R. like a land-bound archipelago. The most significant opposition to the church's compromise with the state in the Stalin years were the letters signed in 1927 by 17 bishops incarcerated in the Solovki prison. These letters called on the government to renounce its systematic persecution of believers, and denounced the collaborationists who claimed that the state's goals and interests were identical with those of the church.

Despite the problems confronting the Russian Orthodox Church today, and the issues that cloud its past, many positive things are happening. Perhaps, through them, it will find the confidence to embark on a new era, in which it engages with society at all levels and cooperates with its friends around the world.

Ultimately, the worry is that they have not jettisoned their old ways, and with renewed vigor would end up being a means of soft control of the population.

Anonymous said...

"KGB material in the Estonian archives leaves no doubt about the patriarch's connections with the KGB. It even gives a specific date for his recruitment: February 28, 1958. He received the code name "Drozdov."

Yeah, right. The KGB stored its "archives" pertaining to its activities against the Orthodox Church in Estonia of all palces... And they forgot to move the archives back to Moscow when the USSR imploded... That's actually hilarious! I suppose these "KGB Documents" were found in Estonia (Estonia lol) in the same file box with the "documents" about Iraqi "yellow cake uranium" purchases...

Um, can you say "fraud"? Can you say "forgery"?