Kremlin Doesn´t Trust Top Orthodox, Putin Aide Says

Sees Tensions with Moscow Patriarchate

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MOSCOW, SEPT. 19, 2001 ( Contrary to popular belief in the West, the Putin government´s relations with the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow are currently «strained,» an aide to the Russian president says.

Maksim Meyer, deputy director of the new administration´s internal policy department, which deals with political planning, told the Keston news service that the relations have been sour since the publication of the Russian Orthodox Church´s Social Doctrine last summer.

The point of contention in that document, he explained, was its originally monarchist slant, which had concerned the new government: «The Russian Orthodox Church is so close to the state that they ought to consult us — we are constantly supporting them.»

Earlier this month, Orthodox Father Vsevolod Chaplin, secretary of the Moscow Patriarchate´s Department for External Church Relations, told the Oxford, England-based Keston agency that no changes had been made at any stage to the Social Doctrine´s position on the monarchy.

Meyer, however, maintained that the monarchist sentiments were toned down, and suggested that the Church had consequently introduced a statement spelling out legitimate circumstances for civil disobedience, which had further strained relations.

«They could demand all pre-revolutionary church property and we could resist, to which they could respond that we are applying an anti-church policy and cite that part of the social doctrine,» Meyer said.

Currently, said Meyer, «our leadership thinks that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is dishonest and doesn´t trust them.»

Russia is a «ritual nation» without deep faith, according to Meyer. During Lent, he noted, expensive restaurants are empty. «People fast but they don´t go to church,» he said.

In that case, the Keston agency asked, why does the government evidently consider the Church to be a significant political factor, especially since polls find that there are few devout practicing Orthodox?

The number of true believers evidently does not impinge upon the Church´s influence, said Meyer, since Patriarch Alexy II scores high ratings in the opinion polls.

«Many people trust them — we know what is going on in the Church in reality, but the people don´t,» he said. «The fact that they are not influential in matters of faith is unimportant — they are a social instrument, a moral authority.»

In Meyer´s view, however, the Orthodox Church´s high public profile should not give it cause for complacency.

«The Church just involves itself in intrigues, money and relations with the state, while its core is crumbling away and trickling out,» he contended. «In the provinces people are dropping into sectarian practices — this always was a very sectarian country. They need to set up an Inquisition.»

Who will be next patriarch?

One of the main difficulties concerning the Orthodox Church, volunteered Meyer, is that the Putin administration cannot see a strong candidate for future patriarch. Meyer described Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as a «difficult passenger» and «too complicated.»

Another figure reputedly close to the Kremlin, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov of Moscow´s Sretensky Monastery, was, in Meyer´s view «ideologically closer» to the government but ranked among those Church representatives with whom it was difficult to maintain dialogue. «They are supposedly ready to support the state, but they also have high ambitions — and they aren´t actually that influential,» he said.

In Meyer´s view, the Orthodox Church´s «personnel crisis» would mean that the next patriarch would in all likelihood be an interim figure. A strong, dynamic figure in the Caucasus who «really understood the situation there would make a very good patriarch,» commented Meyer, «but there just isn´t anyone.»

Turning to the issue of President Vladimir Putin´s personal faith, Keston cited British Prime Minister Tony Blair´s proximity to the Catholic faith alongside his stated intention not to challenge Britain´s abortion law, since, in his view, it would go against the democratic will of the majority. Was Putin´s position on religious matters similar?

Currently, said Meyer, it was. With respect to the Russian president´s formal links with the Church, Meyer accused Archimandrite Tikhon of spreading rumors that he was Putin´s spiritual father.

On a personal level, Putin considers himself Orthodox, assured Meyer, and cited his swift response to the question of what moral values should be reintroduced into Russia — ´Why, Orthodox moral values of course!» On the other hand, stressed Meyer, Putin «understands that we have other confessions in this country.»

A theme to which Meyer repeatedly returned was that of Islam. The Putin administration has yet to come to a proper understanding of Islam, he said, for which task Western expertise would be greatly welcomed.

Meyer spoke of the need for Russia´s own institute for training Islamic clergy «to stop them going to Saudi Arabia.» However, while he alleged that the Russian Orthodox Church requested government protection from Islam, Meyer claimed that both confessions would rank as equals should a status of traditional confession be introduced in Russia.

Claiming to be unaware of the two draft religious policies currently in circulation — both of which propose such a status — Meyer envisaged it as extending to Catholics and Protestants. When Keston asked whether Baptists, Pentecostals and Adventists would all be included as traditional Protestants, Meyer began to muse that «a line would have to be drawn somewhere.»

He then added: «But I am against the whole idea — it is all the intrigues of the Moscow Patriarchate. We don´t need such a status. If the Russian Orthodox Church has problems, they need to sort them out themselves. It is their problem if people leave parishes and go to the Pentecostals, if they can´t attract people.»

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