New law roils Russian church Schism: Orthodox priests seize opportunity to take over a Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral. The law said they could.

October 12, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NOGINSK, Russia -- Police shoved the archbishop into the back of a car, his hands cuffed behind his back. A 2-year-old child wailed in the cold night air. Nuns in their 70s shouted in anger and fear.

The authorities in this industrial-gray city 40 miles northwest of Moscow were acting in the name of Russia's new law on religion, which grants the Russian Orthodox Church special status and diminishes the religious rights of others. With the help of police officers carrying nightsticks and Kalashnikov rifles, they pushed out the Ukrainian Orthodox clergy and worshipers of the Epiphany Cathedral, according to those who were here.

It was Sept. 29, the first working day after Boris N. Yeltsin signed the law. The next morning, a busload of Russian Orthodox priests drove up and occupied the grounds, the ousted parishioners said.

Two weeks later, other guards are still posted inside the gates, wearing camouflage jackets and black berets, refusing to say who they are, admitting visitors by invitation only.

Knots of elderly women gather daily on the pavement outside the gates, looking forlornly at the cathedral they rescued from years of Soviet abuse, trying to fathom whether the religious freedom they celebrated so joyously after the collapse of the totalitarian state is gone forever.

"It was something very cruel," said Lydia Milovidova, 75. "They kicked down doors. They beat people. I shouted at them. I said, 'You're the Gestapo.' "

Valery Bondarenko, a 20-year-old seminarian from Murmansk, has no doubt about what happened. "The new law on religion played a great role in this," he said.

The law on freedom of religion, as it is somewhat inaccurately named, restricts the activities of any religious group that has not been registered for more than 15 years. Fifteen years ago, Russia's official religion was atheism, and few religious groups were permitted aside from the tightly controlled Russian Orthodox Church.

The law places most other religious groups in a second-class status, preventing them from operating schools or obtaining visas for visiting clergy. They can be denied permission to rent public buildings or to accept members or to print literature. They have no legal standing.

The law has been denounced by Western governments and human rights groups for threatening religious freedom -- and foreign missionaries -- but the Russian Orthodox Church managed to get it passed and signed through a Communist-nationalist alliance.

Here in Noginsk, a city of 147,000, the Russian Orthodox Church apparently lost no time in using the law to settle a long-simmering rivalry with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church over the mid-19th-century Epiphany Cathedral.

"We are the first victims of this new law," said Ukrainian Archbishop Adrian, who presided over the cathedral until he was carted off to the police station two weeks ago. "Oh, there will be many more."

Just a few days earlier, a Lutheran parish in the Siberian town of Touim was stripped of its registration and official legal status. The church was an outpost of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church.

With these actions, the law is emerging as a tool for the Russian Orthodox Church to shore up its empire. The church is the only Moscow-based organization that still exerts control throughout the former Soviet Union, says Lawrence Uzzell, who monitors religious freedom in Russia for the Britain-based Keston Institute.

The Russian Orthodox Church was born in 988 in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and its ruling body was known as the Kievan Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate was established in 1448 and in 1686 overpowered and absorbed the Kievan Patriarchate. Ukrainians have not forgotten.

Archbishop Adrian, who was a Russian Orthodox priest when he was assigned to Noginsk in 1989, said true Russian Orthodoxy ceased to exist during the Communist years. Honest believers were murdered. "And a group of clergymen sold the church, making a deal with Soviet power in return for a good life for their short time on Earth," he said.

In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian nationalists re-created the Kievan Patriarchate, and Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev left the Russian Orthodox Church and joined the Ukrainian, taking along a number of parishes and priests, including Archbishop Adrian and the Epiphany Cathedral.

The Russian church still controls most Orthodox churches in Ukraine. Half of the Russian Orthodox Church's parishes lie outside Russia, and most of those -- 6,000 -- are in Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists found it particularly galling that the Russian church controlled Kiev's most famous cathedrals.

"Filaret has decided if Moscow is going to claim sovereignty in Ukraine," Uzzell says, "then he's going to stir up trouble for them. It's part of a complicated religious war going on between the two patriarchates. The Russian Patriarchate would feel its heart had been cut out if it lost those Ukrainian parishes."

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