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God or Gazprom - where does influence and social partnership start in Russia?

Russian Orthodox Cathedral and Man in Religious GarbComplimentary partners or an unholy trinity? Patriarch Kirill, leader of Russia's Orthodox faithful, told assembled clergy on Tuesday that while the Orthodox and the Kremlin elite are getting along nicely the third part ­ society ­ is not yet on board.

The church is gaining influence, although opinions vary about how much it has and how much it should have.

It all adds up to a modern-day version of the historical debate between God, government and the man on the street.

Politically wrong

Although the Orthodox Church is one of four state religions with theoretically equal status, not everyone is comfortable with its dominant position.

And that includes politicians themselves, according to Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Synod for Church and Society.

"They (atheist critics) very often have few ideas about what real Orthodoxy is, so there is a gap [between people and priest] but no antagonism," Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, of the Synod for Church and Society told The Moscow News.

He sees more conflict coming from anti-church elements of the political strata.

For the patriarch and others, closer ties with the authorities are a key part of recreating the chain of faith which was severed by communism.

But critics, such as Tatar historian Nurulla Garif, regard the "christianisation" of Russia as "politically wrong".

"The Russian Orthodox Church has permeated state institutions and become a weapon that has enabled the state to manipulate its people. Religion is not bad, but you shouldn't use religion as a weapon against your own people or other peoples," Garif told Radio Liberty.

Orthodox force

Since Kirill became patriarch in 2009 there has been evidence of the church mixing influence with the incense as it takes a place in the corridors of power.

In 2009 the ruling United Russia party agreed that the patriarch would have the right to preview any planned legislation that interested the church.

Moreover, Radio Liberty reported, the cleric could put forward his preferred amendments before the state Duma gave its verdict.

Sex, predictably, caught the church's eye with Kirill strongly criticising sex education proposals. And while praising the comfortable dialogue between church and state, the Patriarch also explained that he was happy with many new laws which seem to favour the church.

These include religious direction in the state education curriculum, the provision of army chaplains and the returned of property confiscated by the communist state and held until recently by the Russian government.

God or Gazprom?

Opinion is sharply divided over whether the church's roll in political discourse is a welcome staging post for traditional values or an alarming dose of conservatism in a country eager to modernise.

"I wouldn't say that [the church] is out of step with society," Andrei Zolotov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia Profile and religious expert told The Moscow News. "It isn't the church's duty to be catching up with the latest trends in society...The Russian Orthodox church notes the major negative experience of western denominations." Zolotov and Fr. Vsevolod agree that in the struggle to keep abreast of social currents, liberal churches ­ especially protestant ­ have lost their way and lost sight of what real Christianity is about.

Not everyone agrees: "Of course it is out of step! We are talking about different needs," Lev Levinson, expert at the Institute of Human Rights in Moscow and member of the Moscow Society of Atheists told The Moscow News.

He compares the Orthodox faith unfavourably to more offbeat movements like Jehovah's Witnesses, now struggling for legal recognition in Russia, which offer a more personal touch.

Orthodox Christians "are treated like a herd where there is no place for individuals," he said by telephone.

Even the church's role in caring for society is under question: Zolotov said the church takes up the slack for social institutions which are "very weak."

Levinson countered by claiming that given its resources the church is not doing very well either. "Gazprom runs much more socially-orientated and philanthropic programmes," he said.

Render unto Caesar

In the end, though, it seems that political lobbying is an essential fact of modern religious life ­ just as it is for almost everyone in contemporary Russia.

"It's hard to blame the church hierarchy for building up the relationship with the government that they have," says Zolotov. "Whoever you are in Russia...you can hardly achieve anything tangible without close relations with the government."

Yet it is exactly this close relationship that irritates those outside, and within, the faith, he adds.


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