RUSSIA: What is the Orthodox Church's Position on Religious Freedom?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 5 April 2001

Without claiming to hold positions at odds with one another regarding religious freedom, the two great patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople place markedly different emphases upon its position in relation to Orthodox belief. While Moscow is unenthusiastic about religious freedom and does not regard it as integral to Orthodox teaching, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, by contrast, embraces it as the supreme manifestation of a 'divine gift' to humanity: free will.

A pronouncement concerning the Church's attitude towards the principle of religious freedom was among the key statements of the Social Doctrine unveiled by the Russian Orthodox Church at its bishops’ council last August.

In a 9 August 2000 interview in NG-Religii, the religion supplement to Russian national daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad stated that the council’s working group which drew up the social doctrine, and over which he presides, had 'expressed doubt as to whether the principle of freedom of conscience is rooted in the Orthodox tradition descended from apostolic truth.'

Chapter 3 Part 6 of the Social Doctrine itself, while acknowledging that conditions of freedom of religion may allow for the survival of the Church in the modern world, describes affirmation of the principle in somewhat negative terms. 'The appearance of the principle of freedom of conscience testifies to the fact that in the modern world religion is turning from a "common concern" into a "private affair",' it proclaims. 'In itself this process is evidence of the collapse of spiritual values, of the loss of all striving towards salvation in society at large, which is reinforced by the principle of freedom of conscience: Affirmation of the legal principle of freedom of conscience is evidence of society's loss of religious aims and values, of mass apostasy and de facto indifference to the activity of the Church and to victory over sin.'

In his 14 March response to Keston's 7 September question as to whether this pronouncement accorded with social doctrine elsewhere in the Orthodox world, Patriarch Bartholomew stressed that 'it is not to be deduced that the Church of Russia objects' to freedom of conscience from its pronouncement, since it also points out that this principle allows the Church to exist in a non-religious world. Neither, however, does the Patriarch of Constantinople see approval of the principle in the Moscow Patriarchate's statement: 'We simply see an assessment of real events of a social nature.' While the realistic dimension of these events - that the appearance of freedom of conscience is the consequence of negative social processes - is clearly expressed in the pronouncement, explains the Patriarch, the axiological dimension - that this condition is also evaluated in a negative way - is not stated explicitly, 'and it is very risky for us to judge an opinion that is deduced indirectly.'

While not wishing to criticise a possibly negative evaluation of religious freedom by the Moscow Patriarchate, however, Patriarch Bartholomew does set out in the following terms his patriarchate's stance on the issue:

'Freedom of conscience is the greatest divine gift towards humanity, and that which represents most clearly the image of God in the human person. When we say that God created humankind in His image and likeness, we mean that He gave to humankind the spiritual qualities that correspond to those of Divinity, such as knowledge, will, and others, with the crown of all these being the freedom of will and conscience. It is clear that will and conscience which are subjected to some external or internal necessity from which they cannot be separated do not comprise a value of divine quality.'

'Consequently, the legal consolidation of freedom of conscience, and more particularly of religious conscience, is a civilised good and, from a Christian and especially an Orthodox perspective, a "blessing from God", because it hinders the oppression of one man by another, especially in the most inner and vulnerable part of our psycho-spiritual being, namely religious faith. The fact that this leads to a possible fragmentation in societies which until recently appeared, from a religious perspective, as absolutely homogeneous and united, bears witness to the fact that the phenomenon of homogeneity did not correspond to reality, but rather survived as a result of external imposition which hindered the expression of opinions differing from the prevailing one. Yet God, who knows all and who seeks the love of people with all their heart and mind, is not pleased by the forced (hypocritical) behaviour of a person who acts as if he loves Him and trusts in Him. Such behaviour comforts secular authority because it creates an appearance of unity and unanimity among citizens, and it is satisfied with such an appearance because it looks only to social peace. However, this is not enough for the Orthodox Church, which is interested in a true change of heart (in human repentance), and which views events in the depth of the soul and not simply in their external behaviour. This does not mean that it is indifferent towards the peaceful co-existence of citizens. It is interested in and teaches this, but it does not impose it like secular authority. This is why it rejoices in the legislation of freedom of religious conscience, which is one of the means for social peace, given that the forced conduct of citizens, as if they belonged in a religious way to the prevailing faith, contains the danger of a sudden expression of simmering disagreement and an uncontrolled fracture of social cohesion.'

'Therefore, for the Orthodox Church, the principle of freedom of religious conscience which derives from the Lord's word "whosoever wants to follow after me" (Matt. 16:24), must be generally valid and inviolable, even if it provokes the fragmentation of formerly mono-religious societies into multi-religious ones. That is to say, even if we were to accept that which is ascertained in the decision of the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia - about the socio-religious interactions which precede the appearance of freedom of conscience, as well as those which follow it - as resulting from scientific observation, we are in no way led to a denial of this freedom. For, quite clearly, it is not the legally consolidated freedom which causes the undesirable interactions mentioned by the Holy Synod of the aforementioned Church, but the divinely-offered freedom itself and the way in which humanity uses this gift.'

'This freedom, which God gave to us as the supreme gift and most noble representation of the Divinity in the person of each of us created "free like God", we are unable to deny without denying God Himself. Therefore, we regard every effort to confine the divinely-offered freedom of conscience as an opposition to God.' (END)