Battle of faith could head to the courts

Russian Orthodox Patriarch KirillThe public fund Zdravomysliye ("Good Sense") is threatening to sue the press-secretary of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia ­ drawing yet more attention to a long-simmering conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church and its atheist critics.

According to Zdravomysliye's official website, press-secretary Vladimir Vigilyansky is guilty of both slander and incitement of hatred on the basis of religion. Vigilyansky drew the fund's ire when he commented on the fund's desire to strip the Patriarch of his government security detail (Russian law states that only government officials are allowed to have government security detail, whereas the Patriarch is technically the leader of a non-governmental organisation).

Provocative killers

"They're always trying to provoke the media," Vigilyansky said of Zdravomysliye in a radio interview with Kommersant FM in January. "They're fraudsters and that's that! Atheists are guilty of the deaths of millions of our compatriots!"

According to, the fund particularly objects to the idea that they were committing fraud, as well as the idea that it is atheists who are responsible for millions of deaths.

Because the fund is not a legal entity, it cannot collectively sue Vigilyansky, but individual members are planning to sue Vigilyansky personally, says the fund's website. The website also asks visitors to vote on whether or not Vigilyansky should get sued ­ and so far, the numbers are not stacking up in Vigilyansky's favour.

Mixed response

Russian atheism is often blamed for the various excesses of the Soviet government, although not all well-placed local atheists support Zravomysliye's current legal agenda.

"I think it's very silly, what Vigilyansky said about atheism and the deaths of millions of people," said Igor, a Moscow-based entrepreneur who identifies as an atheist and wished to keep his last name private. "Anyone who knows history well will see that atheism is not directly responsible for, for example, the gulag.

"Still, I wish they weren't threatening to sue Vigilyansky, because it distracts from the issue of the Patriarch's security detail. I don't have a personal dislike of the Patriarch, but what about the law?"

Igor went on to say that the government could think the Patriarch's security detail as well-justified, considering, for example, the constant threat of terrorism in the country and the notion that the Patriarch could otherwise become a convenient target. "But in that case, their reasoning should be explained," he concluded.

Faith and trust?

In the papers, on the Internet, and the radio, a war of words over the church's role in modern-day Russia continues. For example, the website of the Orthodox radio station Radonezh recently published statistics acquired via a study by the sociological department of Moscow State university, which claims that 70 per cent of Muscovites approve of the work of Patriarch Kirill, and 67 per cent of all Muscovites "have a trusting disposition" towards the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole.

Nevertheless, a vocal minority does offer criticism of the church and its leaders ­ as well as their relationship with the Russian government in particular, an issue hotly contested by the likes of the Zdravomysliye fund and the church's independent critics.

"God doesn't hang out with government officials," journalist and playwright Valery Pecheykin recently wrote on his blog. "He doesn't giggle on television, and he doesn't come up with dress-codes." [Pecheykin referred to an earlier scandal involving a prominent church official, Vsevolod Chaplin, and his desire to see a dress-code put in place for Russian citizens]

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