Tuesday, 15 July 1997

PARLIAMENT'S RELIGION BILL ALARMS OLD BELIEVERS     by Mikhail Roshchin and Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service Of all the forms of Christianity practised in today's Russia, perhaps the one with the strongest claim to be a 'traditional Russian religion' is the Old Believer faith.  Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were all introduced to Russia by foreigners - but the Old Believer tradition is the result of a purely indigenous Russian reaction against liturgical changes decreed by the cosmopolitan PATRIARCH NIKON in the 17th century.  If the Russian parliament's new bill on religion is what its authors claim it to be - a defence of Russia's unique spiritual heritage against new and alien imports - it should give the Old Believers an especially privileged position, and should enjoy especially strong support from them. But according to several well-informed Old Believers, it does not.     In conversations with clerics and lay leaders of the Old Believer Metropolia of Moscow and All Russia headed by METROPOLITAN ALIMPI, Keston News Service learned that these leaders are convinced that the parliament's proposed law would encroach severely on their rights.  Keston's sources asked not to be quoted by name, but their core objections may be summarised as follows.     Though the Old Believers regard themselves as the true heirs of the Russian Orthodox tradition, the new bill's preamble reflects the Moscow Patriarchate's view that it alone is the bearer of that tradition.  By recognising only Islam, Buddhism and Judaism as 'respected' faiths along with the Moscow Patriarchate, the language of the preamble will allow secular officials to consider the Patriarchate as an especially privileged confession and virtually a part of the state apparat.  The Old Believers say that this has already been happening; they cite examples such as the recent declaration (quoted in the military newspaper 'Krasnaya Zvezda') by MAJOR GENERAL CHERKASOV, the Ministry of Defence official responsible for cooperation with religious organisations, that his colleagues 'must follow a simple rule: contacts of all confessions with the army in Moscow are to be carried out only through the Moscow Patriarchate'.     Keston's sources are especially unhappy about the new bill's Article 8, which they say would have the practical effect of depriving their church of 'all-Russian' status and recognising it only as a 'regional' religious organisation.  They say that the church currently has parishes in only 43 provinces of the Russian Federation, not enough to meet Article 8's requirements. If the bill becomes law, a merely 'regional' religious body would not have a clear right to establish new parishes in provinces where it is not already present.     Also offensive to the Old Believers is the parliament's rejection of their appeals to include in the bill a provision requiring that the secular authorities try to establish which specific confessions originally owned specific items of church property before transferring such items to religious organisations. Instead, Articles 21 and 22 of the current bill would allow the Moscow Patriarchate to continue what the Old Believers call the 'vicious practice' of seizing items such as icons and bells known to be of Old Believer provenance.     Keston's sources pointed out that even before the parliament approved the bill, the Old Believers were already experiencing difficulties in Moscow.  They gave several examples.   --Early this year the head of the Ostozhenskaya Old Believer congregation, GERMAN LAVRENTYEV, was summoned to a public prosecutor's office in Moscow, confronted with allegations that his congregation is a totalitarian sect, and interrogated for several hours.   --Though church buildings confiscated by the Bolsheviks are now being returned to various confessions, the Moscow Patriarchate is enjoying by far the most favoured treatment in this process. When an Old Believer congregation sought the return of a church on Fakelny pereulok near Taganskaya ploshchad, the Moscow authorities refused; to this day the church is still used as a theatre. At the same time the Patriarchate received a church nearby which is now home to a 'Yedinoveriye' congregation - 'Old Believer uniates' who use Old Believer forms of worship but are in communion with the Patriarchate.       --The Old Believers have tried without success to get the return of their church on Khavskaya street near the Danilov Monastery. To this day the church houses a bar and grill built in the mid-1980s.   --The Old Believers have also failed in their attempts to have the authorities return the Old Believer church on Gavrikov pereulok, near the Baumanskaya Metro station.     --Representatives of the Patriarchate have taken possession of a bell from the Cathedral of the Intercession in the Rogozhskaya Old Believers' Commune in Moscow.  The bell is now in the famous St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. (END)