Staunton, April 16 – Despite the Moscow Patriarchate’s call for churches to remain closed over Easter because of the pandemic, the churches in roughly half of the country’s federal subjects will be open in deference to the passionate opposition of the clergy and faithful to closing churches on this high holy day.
According to the RBK news agency which conducted a survey of all 85 federal subjects (including the two in Russian-occupied Crimea), Orthodox churches in 43 of them will be open and conduct services this Sunday while those in 42 others will be shuttered with believers urged to celebrate at home (rbc.ru/politics/16/04/2020/5e9715289a79475afe6558ea).
This is the direct result of Vladimir Putin’s decision to allow regional governments to decide on reactions to the coronavirus, a decision that undercut the Moscow Patriarchate which had agreed with the Kremlin leader’s view that churches should be shuttered during the pandemic and opened the way to this division.
Legally, Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the SOVA human rights center says, churches like any other NGO “must fulfill the legal demands of governors.” The problem arises when church leaders and congregations believe that orders to close churches are both illegal and unconstitutional.
Vladimir Legoyda, head of the Patriarchate’s department for church, society and media relations, says that his office has “everywhere proposed that the bishoprics be guided by the local situation and enter into close dialogue with the local authorities, following the advice of medical experts.”
Some bishoprics have refused, citing their conviction that suspending religious services is a violation of the constitutional rights of Russians. Among the ones that have taken the hardest line in that regard is the bishopric of Petrozavodsk and Karelia. The Chelyabinsk clergy initially took that line but was talked out of it when officials offered to televise services.
The civil authorities in the regions “clearly do not want to spoil relations with believers and take on themselves responsibility for ‘closing’ churches’ if there are no critical indications of infection on their territories,” RBC reports; but they also don’t want to risk the spread of infections especially among elderly parishioners if they don’t try to restrict attendance.
And consequently, both civil powers and church leaders have adopted a variety of strategems. Few of either really want to close churches and no one wants to be in the position of blocking those who want to attend from doing so, let alone using police power to keep them from attending.
Both officials and church leaders would like to see “an ideal situation” in which the church leaders would call on parishioners not to attend rather than ordering the churches shut down. But if that doesn’t work, neither side is ready to take more radical steps, especially outside of major centers of infection.