Monthly Archives: August 2012

UK: Christians join secularists in free speech protest

Photo features, from left to right at the front, Keith Porteous Wood of The National Secular Society, Peter Tatchell and Simon Calvert of The Christian Institute (The Reform Section 5 Campaign)

Secularists, Christians and a gay rights campaigner have struck up an unlikely alliance in support of free speech.

Veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was joined outside the Houses of Parliament this morning by The Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert and Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society.

They were calling for reform of Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which outlaws “insulting words or behaviour”.

The campaigners argue that Section 5 dangerously restricts freedom of speech and want to see the word “insulting” removed.

Tatchell was arrested under Section 5 whilst protesting against Iran’s treatment of homosexuals.

The campaigners carried placards saying “do you know your horse is — ” in reference to an Oxford student who was arrested under Section 5 when he said to a policeman, “Excuse me, do you know your horse is gay?” Police accused the student of homophobia but he was later released after prosecutors abandoned the case.

Christians have also been affected by Section 5. Police officers warned Jamie Murray that the display of passages from the New Testament in his Christian cafe could be in breach of Section 5.

Christian hotel owners, Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, were charged under Section 5 after a row with a Muslim guest over breakfast. Their case was eventually thrown out by a district judge but the high profile court case had a “devastating” impact on their business, which subsequently suffered an 80 per cent drop in income.

The campaign has gained cross-party support and is being led in Parliament by David Davis MP.

The Home Office is due to report on its consultation into Section 5.

Christian Today Australia | Friday, 31 August 2012

Ireland: The Church can no longer be allowed to rule

Cardinal Sean Brady, Ireland's top Roman Catholic cleric, who was asked to resign in May 2012 amid renewed allegations about his role in dealing with the sexual abuse of children by priests, is promoting a lobbying campaign involving Ministers, TDs and Senators in opposition to the introduction of abortion legislation.

THE DECISION by the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Seán Brady, to promote a lobbying campaign involving Ministers, TDs and Senators in opposition to the introduction of abortion legislation represents a significant development. It is likely to send already-poor relations with the Government into deep freeze. The contrast between the Cardinal’s approach and that of the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin would also suggest a difference of opinion within the church.

Last month, Dr Martin confirmed that the church would reiterate its teaching on abortion and marriage equality, regardless of the progress of legislation on these issues. But, he said, “before, during or after the enactment of legislation, the church’s teaching is to teach something, rather than to oppose it.” Such a measured approach has now given way to actively lobbying and co-ordinated opposition.

Nobody expected the Catholic Church to modify its teaching that abortion is sinful in all circumstances. Neither, however, was it expected to engage in aggressive political lobbying of the kind more usually found in the United States – though that is its right. The reason for the cardinal’s pre-emptive strike may be found in a Vatican report that emphasised the need for strict orthodoxy and control. The document, ostensibly about clerical sex abuse in Ireland, was critical of a widespread tendency among priests, religious and the laity to hold theological opinions at variance with the church’s teaching, particularly in relation to celibacy, women priests, divorce and contraception. By highlighting the issue of abortion and actively campaigning on that, however, the calculation may be that other internal divisions can be contained. It may be an unrealistic expectation.

Opinion polls have found that many Catholics have become alienated from their church on sexual matters. A large majority favours the provision of abortion where the life of a mother is in danger. And more than half of GPs surveyed said that abortion should be available to women who choose it. It is 20 years since the Supreme Court ruled in the X case that it was lawful for a woman to have an abortion where her life was at risk. Even in those limited circumstances, however, successive governments declined to provide the legislation necessary to give effect to the judgment.

Minister for Health James Reilly told the Dáil earlier this year that action would be taken when an expert committee reported. Within weeks, 15 members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party had threatened revolt if legislation was introduced and they demanded sight of the report before it went to Government. Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party Eamon Gilmore later described abortion as “a sensitive issue” within Government. So it is. But so is control of the primary education system. The Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice have ruled on the rights of women. Ministers and politicians can no longer prevaricate. They have to decide which takes precedence: canon law or the law of the land.

Irish Times | Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Italy: European Court comes out in favour of embryo testing, despite Vatican opposition

Human rights court rules in favor of Italian couple who want embryo tested for cystic fibrosis

Italy’s ban on screening embryos for diseases before they are implanted in a womb violates the rights of a couple whose first child was born with cystic fibrosis, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.

The court’s finding in favor of the Italian couple triggered fresh calls among Italian politicians for a less restrictive law regulating artificial procreation.

Following fierce lobbying by pro-Vatican centrist parties, Italy’s Parliament passed a law in 2004 that allows couples to use in vitro fertilization for infertility but bans pre-implantation diagnosis of embryos. Vatican teaching forbids artificial procreation methods.

The court concluded it was “inconsistent” that Italians could abort a fetus with defects but not test an embryo before implantation, as the couple had wanted to do. The couple who challenged the law before the Strasbourg court had discovered they are healthy carriers of cystic fibrosis when their daughter was born in 2006 with the inherited disorder.

When the mother became pregnant again in 2010, she had the fetus aborted when it was found to have cystic fibrosis. The couple then hoped to use medically-assisted procreation with genetic screening to avoid transmitting the disease to their children. But Italy’s law forbids that, so they took their quest to the court.

The court noted that the Italian government was trying to “avoid the risk of eugenic abuses” with the law but said it interfered with the couple’s “right to respect for their private and family life.”

Italy has one of Europe’s strictest rules for artificial procreation. It bans the donation of eggs or sperm as well as the use of surrogate mothers, and limits infertility treatment to heterosexual couples who are married or who have been living together for several years.

Italian lawmakers said it was time to change the law.

“(This ruling is the) latest confirmation of the unconstitutionality of this law, which doesn’t at all protect the rights and health of citizens,” said Antonio Palagiano, a lawmaker with the centrist Italy of Values party.

Similar statements came from Parliament’s two largest parties, one from the center-right, the other from the center-left.

In 2009, Italy’s Constitutional Court struck down one of the most contested sections of the law, which had said that only three embryos could be created at one time and that all three must be implanted.

The law was passed under conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi but even his allies urged Tuesday that it be revised.

“It’s further demonstration of the fact that forcing a law, often determined through ideological reasons in one sense or another, never works,” said Fabrizio Cicchitto, one of Berlusconi’s closest political allies.

The Washington Post | 28th August 2012

Russia: How God came to vote for Putin – the background to Pussy Riot

The gradual intrusion of the Orthodox Church into Russian secular life and the state is something that went largely unnoticed by the Russian public. The Pussy Riot trial is beginning to change all that, writes Sergei Lukashevsky.


The Pussy Riot affair pushed the issue of relations between society and the Russian Orthodox Church to the very top of the media and political agenda in Russia over Spring/Summer 2012. Did that media situation reflect underlying reality? Was the conflict simply the result of radical protest activity? The answer to both questions is a very obvious ‘no’. However, the collision of the Russian Orthodox Church with the ‘protest movement’ (in a broader definition, the ‘creative classes’) was, it seems, a collision foretold. All it took was one sudden turn for all the simmering contradictions to be laid bare, and for the conflict to move from its latent to active phase.

This standoff is much more than simply an issue of respect for religious space and the legitimacy of punishing those who do not respect it. The Russian public is already beginning to recognise this, but it still has a lot to discover along the road that lies ahead. Ultimately, it must begin to understand the relationship between the religious and public space, how that relationship came about, and how the criminal prosecution and harsh sentencing of Pussy Riot became possible. The following article attempts to offer helpful assistance in that process.

Communism is dead; long live Orthodoxy! 

Newly free of the shackles of Soviet dictatorship, the activity of the Russian Church during the 1990s was largely focussed on recovering its lost, pre-revolutionary position. At first, this meant simply the return of those churches that had not been destroyed by the Bolsheviks. At this time, an Abbot’s main responsibility was managing construction and restoration work, alongside, of course, the organisation of worship according to standard procedures. It was only in recent years that church authorities began to encourage the clergy to pursue more active social and missionary work.

The restoration of churches and the organisation of worship demanded huge resources. There was little point looking to raise it from the parish: although the number of parishioners increased during the 1990s, the period was largely a time of excruciating poverty for the average Russian. Not unsurprisingly, the church looked, in the first instance, to government, and in the second instance — to business. Relations with government were absolutely paramount. At the same time, however, the acceptance of church bells as a gift ‘from the Solntsevskaya gang’ serves as a vivid demonstration of the kind of enterprises the Church was prepared to engage with.

Naturally enough, the price for financial and other assistance was political support. And given the position of the Church in society at the time, this was an especially useful resource. Since the early 1990s, the Church was consistently rated among the country’s most most trusted public institutions. This trust wasn’t earned by means of any concrete action on the part of the Church. Another institute enjoying similar levels of support was the army, which was actually the subject of much criticism at the time. What Russians seemed to be placing their faith in was not institutions per se, but national symbols. The Russian Orthodox Church played, and continues to play a role as a symbol of spirituality and national identity. It is no coincidence that today’s polls show that the number of Orthodox Christians in Russians outnumbers the number who believe in god.

Initially, the Church exchanged political support for material assistance. After a short while, however, it also began to demand access to political and administrative levers of influence. Missionary outreach and catechesis were, you understand, never among the Russian Orthodox Church’s strongest suits. As the writer Nikolai Leskov noted more than a hundred years ago, ‘Russia was christened, though not enlightened’. All the while that the Russian Orthodox Church had busied itself with the restoration of Churches and searching for parish resources, an enormous number of other confessions had begun to develop their own missionary work and establish rival positions within Russia.

The start of the 1990s was the one and only period that the principle of freedom of religion and conscience was fully respected in Russia. It was a time when representatives from religions of every variety had the opportunity to build churches, register regional offices, to freely enter schools hospitals and prisons.

The Church applies for special status 

In the mid 1990s, the Russian Orthodox Church began to lobby for a new law on freedom of conscience. This law proposed to ‘put a barrier’  in the way of ‘destructive sects’, though the definition of this was wide enough to include religious dominations with large worldwide followings (for example, the Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses and neo-Pentecostalists). President Yeltsin initially refused to ratify the new law, which had been passed by the then-hostile parliament, but was eventually forced to give way. The law remains in force today.

In formal terms, the law changed little, complicating the process of registering new religious organisations, and introducing a rather abstract formula of the ‘special role’ of traditional faiths (Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism). In practice, however, the blossoming relationship between local/regional governments and the Church meant that registering a new religious organisation was near-impossible, permission to build non-Orthodox places of worship was only granted in exceptional circumstances, and churches, hospitals and prisons were closed to all ‘non-traditional’ religious organisations.

The leadership of the other traditional religions supported the Russian Orthodox Church, since they had many of the same issues and requests. Other players simply made do with their role as ‘juniors’, negotiating their own relations with government, or they carried out their work without establishing legal entities or building places of worship. Wider society, including liberal public opinion, paid no attention to this particular development. Those human rights activists who began to defend these ‘weird’ believers — for arguments sake, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who came complete with their rather obtrusive and annoying missionary style — were themselves considered rather strange, comical even.

Vladimir Putin began his presidency with a promise to help traditional religions. For a few days, this was news, but it did not take long to be forgotten. There were so many other more important events to absorb — the war in Chechnya, the raid on NTV, the Yukos Affair. Moreover, the changes themselves did not seem too significant. In fact, the new position had entirely real expression in government policy. The National Security Concept of 2000 contains the following passage: ‘policy in the area of spiritual and moral education… shall include counteracting the negative influence of foreign organisations and missionaries’. Soon after the Concept was published, a number of foreign pastors and Catholic priests were expelled from Russia. Unapproved religions were forced to tune down their activities even more.

Again, it should be stressed that the consolidation of the Russian Orthodox Church’s position within Russia’s religious space went largely unnoticed by the public.  Indeed, Russians on the whole related to religion with positive indifference. Churches existed in a parallel reality and were perceived simply as beautiful pieces of architecture or as the bearer of beautiful traditions, inserting an essential essence of spirituality into Russia’s ugly consumer society.

‘Caution, religion!’ 

Chronologically speaking, the next significant event was the ‘Caution, religion’ trial of 2004-5, brought about in relation to an arts exhibition held at the Andrei Sakharov Centre. At the time, it seemed to be a battle between anti-clerically minded liberals and conservative believers, in which the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government had taken the side of the latter. Today, it is obvious that this process, just like the process that followed four years later in relation to a second exhibition at the Sakharov Centre (‘Forbidden art’), were direct precursors to the Pussy Riot affair. Both trials were workshops for an inquisitorial logic, which equates criticism of the church with ‘insulting faith’, and demands that ‘insult to faith’ be punished as ‘incitement to religious hatred’. Anyone who studies the court transcripts will see this without any difficulty.

The Blue Noses’s photo-installation “A candle of our life/Burn my candle”, displayed as part of the 2007 'Forbidden Art' exhibition at the Sakharov Centre. The trial of the exhibition's curators, Andrei Yerofeyev and Yuri Samodurov, served as the precursor to the Pussy Riot prosecution.

It is now obvious why the Church and Kremlin kept a relative distance in both cases. The trials concerning art exhibitions in the Sakharov Centre in no way infringed the basic question of authority. Pussy Riot, on the other hand, was directed precisely at authority — governmental and church. And from its target came a most asymmetrical response.

Public space invaders

It was during the 2000s that the Russian Orthodox Church began to intrude on the public space in a perceptible way. Everything that could have been acquired uncontroversially— abandoned churches used as warehouses, cinemas and cultural centres — had already been handed over. The only churches that were left were those that housed museums, educational and social institutions.

The Church not only began to lay claim not to these churches, but it also demanded the return of  all buildings that were formerly part of monastery complexes. It asked for the return of any icons or church effects, even those that had become museum exhibits. If the premise itself was entirely reasonable, the methods and language adopted by the Church were more akin to the practices of wild Russian business (including violent takeovers), than they were traditions of Christian humility.

The teaching of religion in schools became an additional area of confrontation between the Church and society. The way the Russian Orthodox Church behaved left little doubt about the way it viewed its relations with society: it proposed to use the government machine to found a new, compulsory school subject called ‘Basics of Russian Orthodox culture’, and to use the public purse to pay for teacher’s salaries. Directed not even at catechesis (already strange in a secular school), but on the propaganda of religious exclusivity and nationalism, the first curriculum left no doubt about the aims of the project.

In both of its battles, the Church failed to score a complete victory. Rublev’s ‘Trinity’, for example, remains on public access in Moscow’s State Tretyakovskaya Gallery.  The tone of the religious curriculum has been softened significantly.  And parents are now given the choice to opt-out of the Russian Orthodox classes in favour of secular ‘moral education’ classes. That said, with these actions the Church had unambiguously staked its claim to a special status, now not only to Russia’s religious, but also social space.

As before, the conflict barely registered among the public at large. Society consistently chose not to take any interest in such issues, just as it chose not to take an interest in issues of free speech and honest elections.

The Church as Gazprom? 

By December 2011, the Russian Orthodox Church was exquisitely positioned for the authorities. Not only did the Church recognise the exclusive interests of one actor, government, and were dependent on it entirely, but the Church could also offer some very useful services in return. As the protest movement broke out, and the legitimacy of government was directly threatened, the Kremlin’s need for the support of the Church grew.

The terms of the social contract that stood behind the first two Putin terms was, broadly speaking, stability and prosperity in exchange for the political dependence of society. The presidential term of Medvedev was marked by promises of reform and democratisation. Putin annulled these promises, hence the surge of popular discontent.

Lacking any other strategy, the authorities have returned to play the same old card of ‘stability’ as before, and have dreamt up all kinds of imaginary threats and enemies to help them. The Kremlin’s ideological position will continue to be broadly protective. In turn, the Russian Orthodox Church is ready and interested in becoming a  protector of traditional values, should the situation demand it. In their proposed offering of ‘traditional christian values’, obedience and submission to authority (ecclesiastical and secular) only accentuate the Gospel truth. The Kremlin’s ideologues have themselves been busy embedding an Orthodox component into their own political work (as the long-established Russian Orthodox wing of the Nashi pro-Kremlin youth movement would demonstrate).

As they did with the Pussy Riot affair, the Church will continue to insist that it is the victim. Their ideologeme of religious life ‘coming out of the ghetto’ has already been well-formed and tested. Essentially,  what this translates to is further attempts to erode the principle of secularism, turning the Russian Orthodox Church into a semi-governmental institution similar to so-called ‘state corporations’ the likes of Gazprom and Sberbank.

A different role awaits representatives of the other Christian denominations and ‘non-traditional’ religions. In the best case scenario, theirs will be a role similar to that which is played out now by the ‘Just Russia’ party, i.e. outside of the main arena. In a worst case scenario, they will be subjected to constant harassment. Traditional religions will be allowed to occupy the same position as the Russian Orthodox Church, but only within specific regions (in the case of Islam and Buddhism) or ethnic groups (Islam or Judaism).


Russian society, or, more exactly, its liberal and protest components, overlooked or chose not to notice the evolution of the Russian Orthodox Church in exactly the same way as it overlooked or failed to notice the establishment of an authoritarian regime within the country. Awareness of a conflict between the religious and public spaces began only with the Pussy Riot affair.

It is highly likely that Putin’s third term will come to be characterised by the increasing ideological and political intrusion of the state and official religious organisations into public life. The aims will be to preserve (for the Kremlin) or increase (the Church) control and influence. Against such a backdrop,  it seems reasonable to warn Russians against confusing the manipulation of ‘traditional values’ to keep a government in power with the real growth of religious fundamentalism.

In defending itself against authoritarian onslaught — whether from government or the Russian Orthodox Church — society has started from a relatively weak position. Its ability to withstand the pressure will depend only in its capacity for mobilisation, solidarity and resistance. Russian society is today only at the beginning of a journey towards acquiring those characteristics.

Open Democracy |  Sergei Lukashevsky | 27 August 2012

France: Government Plans Gay-Marriage Bill

François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande, 24th President of France, will introduce legislation in October authorizing gay marriage.

The French government will introduce legislation in October authorizing gay marriage, a move that would bring France in line with a host of European countries and fulfill an election promise of President François Hollande.

“In October, we will send a bill to the National Assembly and the Senate to allow same-sex couples to marry,” French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Saturday in an address to Socialist Party members at their annual gathering in the Atlantic port town of La Rochelle. “It would also allow them to form families and adopt children,” Mr. Ayrault added.

Mr. Hollande’s Socialist Party controls both houses of Parliament, rendering the passage of a gay-marriage bill more likely.

Same-sex marriage was one of the election pledges Mr. Hollande made during his campaign this year. Several government officials had insisted it would become a reality quickly.

In the late 1990s, France was one of the first countries to allow same-sex civil partnerships, which gave the principal rights and obligations of marriage except for adoption. But France has lagged behind other countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Spain, which have all approved gay marriage in the past decade.

According to several polls, a majority of French people approve same-sex marriage, although the majority backing adoption is thinner.

The debates over the bill could be rocky in the French Parliament.

During the election campaign, former President Nicolas Sarkozy and many members of his party said they opposed gay marriage. French religious authorities of all stripes oppose extending marriage rights.

Two weeks ago, a first skirmish broke out on the issue after the Catholic Church’s top authority advised his flock to pray for every person to “benefit from the love of a father and a mother”. Gay-rights organizations and religious groups clashed on the prayer in the media.

The Wall Street Journal, Europe | INTI LANDAURO | 28th August 2012

Scotland: Catholic anti-gay campaign attacked by other churches in Scotland

The row between two Scottish churches over same-sex marriage intensified yesterday when a leading Episcopalian referred in his sermon to "bigotry from the pulpit".

The Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, spoke in his church on the day priests read to their congregations a letter from Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of Scottish Catholics.

Cardinal O’Brien said the church would establish a nationwide commission to challenge the Scottish Government’s plans. “While we pray that our elected leaders will sustain rather than subvert marriage, we promise to continue to do everything we can to convince them that redefining marriage would be wrong for society,” he said.

Mr Holdsworth held a special open service yesterday, having invited straight and gay people of all denominations.

In his final sermon before departing on sabbatical, he told the congregation of some 200, which was larger than normal: “While I am away, who has the responsibility of sharing the good news in Glasgow?

“The good news is that no form of injustice will win out in the end. The good news is that we can beat back bigotry wherever we find it, even when it comes from the pulpit.”

Noting that he had “stirred up a bit of a storm” with his open invitation, the Provost added: “All the churches have some repenting to do. For they seem to have conveyed the message that not everyone was equal; not everyone was welcome.”

He earlier attracted the ire of the Roman Catholic Church for the wording of his invitation to the service “in a church where gay people are welcomed and not marginalised”. A senior Catholic source had accused him of using “incendiary and uncharitable” language.

The service at St Mary’s came as the Catholic Church said it would establish a National Commission for Marriage and the Family to co-ordinate a campaign against gay marriage.

The church had designated yesterday as National Marriage Sunday.

After yesterday’s sermon, Mr Holdsworth declined to elaborate on his “bigotry” message but said: “The thing I found amazing is how busy a church can be on a Sunday morning simply by saying that everybody is welcome. That’s a position that churches share across the city but somehow, by saying that this is a place where everybody is welcome, that is the message that will draw people in. Perhaps as churches we have forgotten how to say that.”

Asked about the messages on same-sex marriage from the Catholic hierarchy, he said: “I think people get weary of hearing a negative message from church people. What they want to hear is positive – about changing the world for the better, about justice, about love.”

Jim Whannel and Colin Johnston, members of an Episcopal church in Paisley, said: “It’s a very sad day for Christianity because of what is happening in other churches.”

A lesbian Christian couple, Ruth and Jaye Richards-Hill, also backed Mr Holdsworth’s open invitation. Mrs Richards-Hill said: “Somebody needs to stand up and create a balance in the opinion, and I think that worked.”

A spokesman for the Catholic Church declined to respond to Mr Holdsworth’s latest comments

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We intend to proceed with plans to allow same-sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships because we believe it is the right thing to do, and there is significant support for legislation across Scotland.

“We are equally committed to protecting religious freedom and freedom of expression, and ensuring that religious celebrants opposed to same-sex marriage do not have to solemnise same-sex ceremonies.”

The Herald Scotland | Russell Leadbetter | Monday 27th August 2012


Demonstrate for human rights and secularism!

Join the “March & Rally for a Secular Europe” !


Scotland: Should the Catholic Church have a veto over the legislative process?

Alex Salmond needs to remind Cardinal O’Brien that Scotland is a democratic country, not a theocracy.

Cardinal O’Brien’s arrogance, evident in his insistence that he has some veto over the legislative process that applies to everyone, not just Catholics, is breath-taking (your report, 20 August). The majority of the population, including many Catholics, are repelled by the Church hierarchy’s heartless bile on equal marriage.

The cardinal is also impeding religious liberty: liberal Christians and Jews wish to be able to celebrate gay marriages in their churches and synagogues. Who is the cardinal to say they cannot?

Alistair McBay

National Secular Society

News Scotsman | 21st August 2012

Alistair McBay of the ­National Secular Society implies that the Catholic Church has no right to interfere in politics and reminds us that: “Scotland is a democratic country, not a theocracy.” Norman Bonney asks: “Why should the Church’s leaders have such privileged access to government?” (Letters, 21 ­August).

In a modern democracy the Catholic Church claims its right to speak out for the same reason that any other civil society association or organisation does – a natural right to proclaim and promote its values, and to persuade others, to start a debate about the health of society and its priorities, applying the wisdom and insights of the Christian tradition to the great questions ­besetting contemporary life.

The Church does this because it cares, above all, for the common good, meaning that which belongs to all by virtue of their shared humanity.

The common good, says the catechism of the Catholic Church, is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their ­fulfilment more fully and more easily”.

The common good is a key tenet of the Church’s vision for society and the principles which it believes lie behind its healthy functioning.

Both Mr McBay and Mr Bonney should be reminded that the Church’s authority to speak out derives from its moral authority and independence as one of the world’s leading and oldest civil ­society organisations.

Martin Conroy


News Scotsman | 22nd August 2012

Russia’s sinister marriage of church and state

President Vladimir Putin: looking to the heavens for guidance? Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS

In her statement to a nobbled judge hearing a trumped-up charge before a kangaroo court, Yekaterina Samutsevich explained why she had “blasphemed”. The secular forces of oppression at Putin’s disposal were not enough for him, she said with remarkable lucidity given her perilous circumstances. He wanted “transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power” too. The Orthodox church, “associated with the heyday of imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself”, now gave credulous believers religious reasons to support the crime gang in the Kremlin.

Pussy Riot had staged many protests. Revealingly, the security apparatus came for Samutsevich and her sisters after a 30-second stunt in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. It hit a nerve by striking at Russia’s union of church and state – of patriarch and oligarch – into a common reactionary front.

“Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out,” they sang. The Holy Mother remained as elusive as ever, but Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow, is more than content to keep Putin’s money launderers in the Temple. He has struck a deal. Putin offers the Orthodox church a partial restoration of its tsarist privileges: state aid for the restoration of churches the communists destroyed; and the return of priests to the schools and universities. Kirill returns the favour by making support for the Kremlin kleptomaniacs a quasi-religious duty. Everyone quotes his statement that Putin’s rule was a “miracle of God”. But they miss the hysterical assertion that before Putin’s divine intervention Russia was in as bad a state as when the Nazis invaded in 1941. Those who protested against Putin’s rigged election, continued Vsevolod Chaplin, spokesman for the Moscow patriarchate, were comparable to foreign agents. They were “under the influence of puppet masters” – manipulated and suspect.

Russian Orthodoxy has always been a state religion. The communists persecuted believers, but the KGB found many collaborators in the church who were prepared to put obedience to established power first. For this reason, it is a mistake to dismiss Kirill’s support for Putin as simple cynicism. He believes in autocracy and hates liberalism as much as his predecessors did and Putin does. That Kirill is liberalism’s avowed enemy becomes clear from reading his Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony. If its Amazon ranking is a guide, hardly any English reader has glanced at it, which is a pity because although the cleric’s arguments are drear when they are not repellent, they provide as a good an illustration as any of how opposition to human rights can be covered with smells and bells.

“The most fundamental conflict of our present era is the clash between the liberal mode of civilisation on the one hand and national culture and religious identity on the other,” Kirill begins. To which one can only say that he is right and that he is also fighting for the wrong side. I must emphasise that by liberalism the patriarch does not mean rampant individualism but any human society that tolerates “sin” providing sinners “remain within the law of land and do not harm others”. No charge is too wild to throw at such hell holes. “The human rights concept is used to cover up lies, falsehood and insults against religion and national values,” Kirill fumes. Secularism is diseased – “infected with the bacillus of self-destruction”. Secular countries allow women to control their fertility and tolerate homosexuality. They are nominally free “but defenceless against evil”.

The cleric barely makes an effort to disguise how Russia’s dark traditions of occidentalism and antisemistim have influenced his thought. Universal values are the product of a malign, alien ideology that comes from the western “protestant” theologians and – but, of course – “Jewish philosophers”. The Orthodox church can accept liberalism in the far-off lands of Europe and North America. But in Russia they “cannot stay silent when norms contradicting the foundation of the Orthodox faith are imposed on them”. This is the “multi-polarism” of Putin’s foreign ministry in clerical vestments. Liberal standards have no place in Russia.

As always, the trouble with cultural exceptionalism is that it has no honest way of arguing with members of that culture who want change. You can search Patriarch Kirill’s writings in vain for any acknowledgement that Russians who protest against corruption or the denial of democratic rights or the crimes of the wars in the Caucasus have a case that deserves a hearing. They are just the tools of “puppet masters”; the propagators of the debased ideologies of “protestant theologians” and “Jewish philosophers”.

Kirill’s writing reveals one of Russia’s most sinister characteristics. A regime of former KGB officers and plutocrats is robbing the country blind, while the leadership of the national church supports the thieves and denounces their opponents.

At least the patriarch has made it clear that he is liberalism’s enemy. The great wet blanket that covers criticism of religion in democracies makes returning that enmity a struggle. Overpaid and undereducated commentators in the half-serious media denounce criticism of religion as a form of racism. So I suppose that before I am accused of possessing a phobia about Orthodoxy, I must add that Putin was able to count on the support of Russia’s craven chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, who told him that because protests had taken place on Saturday (the Jewish sabbath) they were “not a Jewish business”.

The regime could also line up a procession of mullahs and lamas to support it. The toleration of tyranny is an ecumenical business in Russia. Nor does indulgence stop at Russia’s borders. The English translation of Kirill’s fulminations carries a foreword by Richard Chartres, the silly and faintly disgraceful Anglican Bishop of London. He offers no criticism of the patriarch. Instead, he praises his “acute intelligence”.

The most ignorant political insult of our time must be the charge of “militant atheism” that invariably follows the accusation of racism. What else is there to say about it? The Soviet communists who murdered Christians, Jews and Muslims were militant atheists. They persecuted others because of their beliefs. Who are the communists’ successors today? If you do not know, I suggest that you direct your inquiries to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. After two years “corrective labour” in a “penal colony”, they may be able to reply.

The Observer | Nick Cohen | 19th August 2012

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