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Vienna – President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to chair the Council of Ties with Religious Organizations raises the status of that group which up to now had been led by an official in the presidential administration and thus gives a major victory to the Russian Orthodox Church and to its newly-installed head, Patriarch Kirill.
On the one hand, this is yet another indication that Medvedev and perhaps especially his wife Svetlana are far more interested than their predecessors in playing a substantive and not just symbolic role in religious affairs and having the Russian Orthodox Church of which they are both active members play a larger role in the affairs of the state.
And on the other, Medvedev’s elevation of this council almost certainly will prevent the formation of a Soviet-style Council of Religious Affairs or religious affairs ministry, a step non-Orthodox groups have long sought to gain better access to the state but one the Moscow Patriarchate has opposed because it would lessen the importance of its privileged access.
In both cases, the president’s move represent a personal victory for Kirill, whose supporters have long argued that once he became patriarch, the Church would be in a position to play a far larger role in politics and society than had been the case under the late Aleksii II, whose role in Moscow at least was more symbolic than practical.
Lest anyone miss the importance of Medvedev’s decision, Kremlin officials told “Kommersant” that it was “unprecedented” that that not only did his chairing of the group raise its status but that the president plans to transform it into a group that meets on a regular basis and makes decisions.
The tilt toward the Russian Orthodox Church was reflected in the composition of those attending: One person each from the three other “traditional” Russian religions, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, but seven other leading Orthodox churchmen, including Metropolitans Yuvenalii and Kliment.
Perhaps indicative of the way in which Medvedev plans to deal with religion, Islam was represented by Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), rather than by the self-styled Supreme Mufti of Russia, Talgat Tadjuddin, Chairman of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Ufa.
But certainly indicative of where things are in Moscow now were those not in attendance: There was no one from the Roman Catholic Church, no one from the Protestant Evangelicals, and no one from the Old Believers, groups that Kirill has long insisted are not “traditional” religions of Russia.
At the same time, Medvedev’s decision to chair the meeting is the latest indication of the Russian government’s tilt toward Kirill more generally. Since he was installed a month ago, Moscow has indicated it will return enormous amounts of property to the Church and announced subsidies for the restoration of the New Jerusalem Monastery.
As “Kommersant” pointed out in its article today, those who pushed for Kirill’s election as patriarch “predicted that the Church under [his leadership] would for the first time become a political subject and not ‘an object of manipulation by the state” and that he would become “a political figure on the federal level.”
One of Kirill’s most outspoken supporters, Deacon Andrey Kurayev said that the coming together of Church and state in this way could lead to a revival after several years of a typically Byzantine model in which the patriarch would serve as regent for a young president , I beg your pardon, emperor.”
Kurayev’s statements were echoed by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Kirill’s longtime deputy in the Patriarchate’s External Relations Department. He added that “the Church does not intend to become a subject of politics” but does want influence the country through its followers, “including the most influential.”
Whether either the Russian government or the Russian Church will find this relationship entirely comfortable is uncertain or whether the large number of Russians who believe in the separation of Church and state as required by the Constitution will be happy about this rapprochement between the two is far from clear.
But three things are already obvious, each of which are likely to cause problems in the future. First, Medvedev wants a far closer relationship with Kirill than his predecessors had with Aleksii II. Second, his approach effectively lowers the status of the three other “traditional” faiths of Russia. And third, it makes no provision for all the other religions.