Staunton, September 18 – In an unusual and, in the view of many, unprecedented action, some 100 priests of the Russian Orthodox Church from across the country and abroad yesterday signed an open letter in defense of those who took part in protests on July 27 and August 3 about the Moscow city elections and were then convicted for their actions.
The text of their letter was published by the Moscow media and has attracted enormous attention in Russia (interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=73357, hpravmir.ru/otkrytoe-pismo-svyashhennikov-v-zashhitu-zaklyuchennyh-po-moskovskomu-delu/ and articles listed at sova-center.ru/religion/news/authorities/elections/2019/09/d41475/).
It was quickly denounced by the Moscow Patriarchate, whose Vakhtang Kipshidze, the deputy head of the synodical department for church-society relations, pointed out that “struggle with the authorities has never been and never will be the mission of the Church” (ria.ru/20190918/1558791603.html).
But later the church leadership appeared to soften its views and said that the patriarchate had asked the center for human rights at the World Russian Popular Assembly to study the issues that the open letter had raised (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/09/19/82029-novye-pechalniki-zemli-russkoy).This series of events has prompted some to ask whether the ROC MP has changed in some fundamental way. Kseniya Luchenko, a Moscow journalist who writes on religion for the Carnegie Moscow Center, is among those who views this action as a watershed moment (carnegie.ru/commentary/79880).
“This is a rare case when the adjective ‘unprecedented’ would not be unprecedented,” she writes. First of all, there has never been such a collective action of the priesthood without the agreement of the church authorities in history.” Moreover, “this is the first time priests have stood up in defense of their parishioners against the authorities rather than the reverse.”
A segment of the signatories, Luchenko continues, consists of “well known Muscovite, St. Petersburg and foreign parish” leaders, “but the majority are from the regions. This geography is impressive considering that this is a Moscow case.”
“Even more impressive,” she says, is the fact that the priests have attracted to their side others. In addition to them, a thousand people have now signed this declaration, “supporting not just their own people but all those involved.”
And equally striking given the typically nebulous formulations of the church, the open letter is both brief and specific. It names names and actions and thus puts the authorities in a position where they either have to respond or be seen to be deaf to these complaints.
“Of course,” Luchenko says, “a large role in all this played the possibility of mobilizing people through social networks: the first priests who signed the letter were acquainted via Facebook and the signatures were collected online. But social networks have existed for more than a decade … and this letter is the first of its kind.”
What also must be kept in mind is that “the ROC clergy is one of the least defended social groups in present-day Russia. It is entirely dependent on the church leadership, the ruling hierarch and his coworkers. They are without rights and cannot simply ‘change jobs’ and go to another boss.”
“Therefore,” Luchenko argues, “any public expression can lead too unpredictable consequences and make their families hostages. For a priest, the decision to sign an independent document criticizing the judicial and executive power and demanding justice from the state is an act of great courage.”
The patriarchate may try to bury this: sending the letter to the center for human rights at the World Russian Popular Assembly may be a step in that direction. After all, the head of that body is Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam who has always been close to the state and is rumored to be linked with the security agencies.
But however that may be, Luchenko concludes, this letter is going to become a key date in the history of the Church, a signal example of how tensions and divisions within Russian society are echoing in an institution few thought would ever be subject to them.