Tuesday 24 August 1999

A PARISH PRIEST TALKS ABOUT THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH TODAY: AN INTERVIEW WITH FR GEORGI EDELSHTEIN Keston News Service Fr Georgi Edelshtein sits in the latest church which he and his community are restoring, and talks to a western visitor. A distinguished-looking man, no longer young, he has a shock of grey hair and an upright bearing. He is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, struggling to minister to the people in the village of Karabanovo in Kostroma diocese.   'Tell us about this church', the visitor asks him. 'After the communist revolution,' says Fr Georgi, 'tractors were stored and serviced in this church. Do you think they could get them through these narrow doors? Of course not. So they simply tore down a wall.' 'I came here for the first time on Easter. I went to some ladies at the shop next door, and I said, 'I have come to reopen the chuch. Let's go and pray for those who opened the church 150 years ago, for those who couldn't attend all this time, and for those who are buried in the churchyard.' They looked at me suspicioiusly and said, 'Father, you should go and take a look at it first, and then see whether you are ready to restore it. They kept fertiliser here for ten years, there was no roof, all the rain and snow came in and turned the fertiliser to liquid. It is knee-deep in wet fertiliser inside; if you stood there for an hour, your boots would be destroyed. So they stood outside the window, and I stood inside singing 'Let God arise'. Then I went round the church for the Paschal procession, singing 'Christ is risen', and two or three women went into the churchyard, and we brought a table from the house opposite the church, and that was our first service. About fifteen people were present.' 'This building is without doubt the most ecumenical church in the whole of Russia, because everybody comes here to restore it... I remember our first collection; I received the equivalent of eighteen dollars - quite a lot for only fifteen people at that time. Then I received money from the Lutherans, the  Baptists, and three years ago there was a group of Catholics from Ireland who had met me at a conference. One Catholic came here and didn't say much, but this March I received sixteen hundred dollars from him.' 'As for me, my father was a Jew, and my mother was Polish Catholic. So it is a most ecumenical congregation!' Fr Georgi goes on to talk about his work in a prison with 250 juvenile offenders. 'There is only one way to be a Christian,' he concludes, 'and we read it on the Sunday of the Last Judgment. Jesus didn't ask people what confession they belonged to, or what language they spoke, or how high their iconostas was. He asked only, "What did you do?  How did you help your neighbour?"... I think any priest in Russia could tell you hundreds of stories about how we always learn from our congregation. 'My congregation is one of the poorest in our diocese but we still manage to do something...' Chirstmas and Easter are the most difficult days for the 46 orphans who receive no visitors and no presents. One year the congregation brought 450 eggs so the orphans received as many as they wanted. Another time one of the poorest girls in the village was told to choose one of the 20 dolls on a table in the church including a Barbie - the most desired doll for little girls. She looked and chose a dirty old doll with one arm loose. Fr Georgi asked her why, and she said, 'Well, Father, you teach us to take care of the poor and the miserable and I feel that this doll needs me more than Barbie. I'll sew on her arm and give her a good dress.'   When the orphans are released from prison, they have nowhere to go, so in the winter they go to the priest. Fr Georgi says he thinks it would be very easy to 'adopt' these children as a godparent and send letters and possibly presents. If the child knows that his or her natural mother was a drunkard, in prison, let him know that there is somebody else who loves him, cares for him - that's all.' Keston asks Fr Georgi what he thinks about the new 1997 law on religion. 'I am not in favour of this law. It is aimed against the Russian Orthodox Church more than against any foreign missionaries. I insist it is directed against us - against Orthodox believers. It is an admission that our Church is weak, and that we cannot oppose those missionaries.' Fr Georgi goes on to explain that the Church is weak because it is still compromised: as an institution it is allied not with the people but with the government. 'If you go to into Kostroma you can buy Saint Springs Water. It's famous all over the world. An acquaintance of mine took me to the zoo in Chicago, and the first thing I saw was Saint Springs Water! It's bottled and produced here in Kostroma, and on the label you read that the money is used to restore  monasteries and churches. You should know that not a dollar has been given to restore monasteries and churches. We have annual meetings with all the clergy of our diocese. With one hundred and thirty-five people present, the Archbishop of Kostroma, Aleksandr, presented a report about the archdiocese. He asked us all to ask any questions we might have. I raised my hand and said, "I would like to hear your financial report about all the income provided for our diocese by Saint Springs Water, and the profit margin, and how the money was spent." He refused to answer my question.' '"But," I say, "I have four churches, and I have never received a single penny from our President Yeltsin, or from my patriarch, or from my bishop to restore these churches. I have to rob my congregation, and you know they are the poorest group of our society.  Most of them are old-age pensioners and have not received their pensions for many months; many of them remember the War, when their husbands went off and never came back..."' 'In 1992 the Council of Bishops organised a special commission, which was to uncover the role played by our bishops who cooperated with the KGB. They elected eight young bishops who were ordained after perestroika, who were not connected with the KGB under communism; the president of that group of eight is my bishop, the Archbishop of Kostroma. For six years I have been asking him the same question: "What has this commission been doing? How many documents have they examined?"... I have asked that question maybe fifty or sixty times. He has never given me an answer.' 'I am obedient to my bishop and my Patriarch but that does not deprive me of my right to criticise them.' 'You are corrupting our Church by sending money or humanitarian aid to our top officials. Don't do it. Give only at the grass-roots level. Of course, it's difficult; it's much easier to bring a container and just unload it in Moscow, and congratulate yourself and say you've done a good deed.' 'I'm convinced that my Church, today, is the only island of communist society. It's a "nature reserve" where this system organised by Stalin still exists just as it was twenty or thirty years ago.' 'And very often, our church today is connected with the most dangerous groups of our society, the most militant communists and nationalists.  Someday they will do more than just beat people up, believe me. It's very dangerous. And they will call themselves "Orthodox believers" who are defending "Holy Mother Russia" against Masons, Jews, Protestants - anyone. It doesn't matter who your enemy is. If you don't have one, you must create one.' 'The essential message is: "Tell the truth".' 'But if you do that, very likely, on your way to church, someone with an axe will get you in the back of the head.' 'That's right. It's very dangerous to be a Christian.' The visitor asks Fr Georgi about his attitude to 'open' Orthodox such as Fr Aleksandr Men. 'Well, there are a lot of things he said that I disagree with. Very often, we argued - I can't say we quarrelled, because he had a very good sense of humour. It was very difficult to quarrel with Fr Aleksandr Men! We disagreed on many points. But we were personal friends... I think one of the best preachers, and perhaps the best teacher of Orthodoxy - of Christianity - in Russia at that time was Fr Aleksandr Men. But these heads of theological academies - why didn't they invite him to teach there? Only because they were afraid that he might be the best professor, the most beloved, the most educated, the most brilliant, and the pupils would immediately see how poor the other teachers were intellectually.' 'Last week,' says the visitor, 'we were called upon to defend the work of Larry Uzzell, of Keston Institute. Someone published a report saying that we shouldn't support Keston, and I was upset, because Keston's main role is to tell the truth.' 'We must support Keston Institute,' agrees Fr Georgi. 'I know for sure that Keston Institute has been, and is, the only source of true information about the situation in my country for thirty-five years. In German, it's probably 'Glaube in der Zweiten Welt', in Zurich. But for English-speaking people it's Keston, there's no other source of information at all.' These are just some edited highlights from the interview with Fr Georgi Edelshtein. 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