RUSSIA: Third Draft Religious Policy?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 12 July 2001

Elements of the Russian Orthodox Church's social doctrine `could prove a good foundation for the drawing-up of normative legal acts supplementing existing legislation on issues concerning freedom of conscience and religious organisations,' according to the recommendations of a hearing held at the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, on 6 July. The hearing appears to be the first occasion on which the Church's social doctrine has been proposed not merely as an internal ecclesiastical document but also as a possible basis for the Russian state's policy on religion.

Adopted at last August's Bishops’ Council, `The Foundations of a Social Concept for the Russian Orthodox Church' claims the following social areas as legitimate for Church-state collaboration: peacemaking initiatives, preservation of social morality, charity, defence of cultural heritage, dialogue at any level on issues of relevance to Church and society, welfare of the armed forces, crime prevention, science, health, culture, the media, economic activity of benefit to Church, state and society, support for the family and combating the activities of `pseudo-religious groups.'

Hosting the 6 July hearing, Viktor Zorkaltsev, a Communist Party deputy and chairman of the Duma's religion committee, allowed principal speaker Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as long as he wished to give an exposition of the Church's social doctrine. As well as heading the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan Kirill chairs the committee which compiled the August 2000 document. In addition to explaining the social doctrine's contents, Metropolitan Kirill criticised what he sees as the current tendency in Russia for state officials and religious studies experts to `make a radical interpretation of the constitutional provision of separation of church and state beyond that of even the US and France.' In his view, however, this `phase' would pass: `The Church will be present in all social institutions because people want to see it there.'

Responding to Metropolitan Kirill's address, Zorkaltsev praised the Church's social doctrine as `a bold step forward into the twenty-first century'. He did not dwell upon its extensive treatment of moral issues, however, but emphasised the importance of the Church as a national heritage institution: `In villages where there are no libraries or amenities the Church is fulfilling the role of preserving cultural heritage.'

Speaking on behalf of the country's Jews, one of Russia's two chief rabbis, Adolf Shayevich, was more effusive in his praise of the doctrine: `We are prepared to support every word of this Concept as it is truly based upon the word of God.'

By contrast, one of the most senior Russian government officials in the sphere of state-confessional relations, Andrei Sebentsov, took issue with a number of the hearing's recommendations. Emphasising that the Russian Constitution was the sole basis for drawing up legal acts, he argued that the differing spiritual and social areas of jurisdiction of Church and state as stipulated in the Church's social doctrine could not form a similar basis since they emanate from `another sphere'.

Addressing the specific proposal that the State Duma take into account the basic provisions of the Church's social doctrine and similar documents of `other traditional confessions of the Russian Federation' both when formulating proposals for the improvement of the 1997 law on religion and facilitating the development of legal foundations for institutes of civil society, Sebentsov suggested that the word `traditional' be omitted, and commented: `Any Concept in this area is important - we can't refer to just one narrow confession.'

Chairing a session at a 21-22 June Moscow conference devoted to `Freedom of Conscience and the Provision of Mutual Religious Understanding', Sebentsov had reproached Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Fr Vsevolod Chaplin for speaking against the Russian constitution and law on religion and distorting historical fact while Fr Chaplin was returning to his seat after addressing the delegates. (END)