Becoming a Voice for National Unity
Moscow’s “National Prayer Breakfast” has a new format
M o s c o w -- On 15 March, approximately 200 religious and secular leaders gathered in Moscow’s exclusive “President-Hotel” for the 11th Russian National Prayer Breakfast since its inception in 1995. This year’s gathering, which was entitled “Russia – a Multi-National and Multi-Cultural Country”, was marked by Nikolay Svanidze’s impassioned call for Russian society to address the crying social and economic needs of its young. Svanidze, a prominent TV journalist and head of the state-run “Commission of the Public Chambre for Multi-National Relations and Freedom of Conscience”, decried the aggressive, xenophobic nationalism increasingly prominent among the nation’s young. Millions of youth are suffering from “poverty, crudity, violence and unjust courts and are seeking a release for their aggressive emotions”. He described the state’s propaganda for the young as promoting xenophobia and being “majestically-superfluous and nationalistic in character".
Svanidze noted that Russia’s “patriotic” societies and media have described the earthquakes in Japan as just “punishment for encroaching upon our rights to the Kuril Islands” just off the Japanese coast. This is an expression of our total lack of pity for the needy of Japan and elsewhere. He branded this inhumane reaction “a result of our moral isolationism, a post-imperial syndrome”. He consequently appealed for a “national programme teaching respect for one another, something almost completely absent from our country”. “Social escalator” programmes could instil in the young a sense of hope for the future. Russians too must learn that all of us are first-of-all simply human beings without ethnic or confessional boundaries.
Unity was the order of the day. Sergey Melnikov, Head Secretary of the “Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations at the Seat of the President of the Russian Federation”, cited the terrorist attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on 24 January which killed 37 and injured 180. He remarked that thanks to blood donations, “the blood in the veins of the survivors was merged with the blood of those from differing faiths”. This symbolises Russia’s existence as a united and single organism. Akhmad Garifullin, a deputy of Moscow’s head mufti, noted that the USSR’s victory over fascism was only possible because the nation acted as one organism irrespective of individual confession. Today‘s challenges demand a similar amount of unity: “Prayer is the weapon of the believers. We stand together in the struggle against terror.”
As a sidelight, Alexander Torshin, First Vice-Chairman of the Council of the Russian Federation (Upper House), explained the traditional Russian aversion to the term “tolerance”. Along with the positive connotations of friendship and mutual respect, it is to the Russian mind also associated with undue acceptance of “injustice, crudity and lack of culture”. Tolerance can mean, in English terms, that “anything goes”.
The event’s new format
“We Baptists never got to put in a word of our own!” one Baptist worker complained following the event. The Russian Prayer Breakfast has traditionally been a forum largely for the self-presentation of Protestant churches and organisations. So this year’s format, in which the lectures and greetings were limited to politicians as well as one Catholic, Muslim and Jewish representative, was a significant remake. Protestant leaders such as the Charismatic Sergey Ryakhovsky and the Pentecostal Eduard Grabovenko remained silent; the powerful businessman, bishop and ex-Baptist Alexander Semchenko did not even attend. The two Protestants who spoke were Pavel Sautov at the opening and his young deputy, Vyacheslav Starikov, at the close. Both are from the small “Russian Association of Independent Evangelical Churches”. Nearly a year ago, Sautov replaced the Baptist Vitaly Vlasenko as Chairman of the Board for the "National Prayer Breakfast Fund”. Vlasenko is presently the Prayer Breakfast’s deputy head.
Thanks to its brand-new format, this smaller and briefer Prayer Breakfast was not without hiccups. In a vast departure from Russian tradition, the audience usually did not rise from their tables for prayer. The prayers from the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim speakers seemed to be more read than prayed.
Alexander Torshin, a veteran participant at Washington’s National Prayer Breakfast, explained in his short speech the intended future direction of the Russian movement. In agreement with the North American model, the Russian event is intended to become more of a presentation from and for politicians – not clergy. That is something quite different from the past Protestant event attended by a few politicians. Torshin reported that he was impressed by President Barack Obama’s speech at the Washington Prayer Breakfast on 3 February. Leaving politics completely aside, the US-President had spoken about his own personal pilgrimage of faith.
Torshin regards Russian politicians publically testifying of their personal faith to be a distant dream, but he does believe that prayer gatherings will begin to take place within the Russian Duma and Parliament in the coming months. (See his Russian-language website: “www.torshin.ru”.) In his speech on 15 March, he described the prayers and gatherings of small groups of believing politicians as a unifying force, as “soft diplomacy promoting the resolution of conflicts” in a highly-contentious society. A friend of Protestants, Torshin had in 2008 invited Western farmers and tradespeople to return and resettle a part of the vast Russian plains.
Criticism of the Breakfast’s new format centers on the fear that the event may not remain explicitly Christian. Evgeny Bakhmutsky, Senior Vice-President of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, stated in an interview that he missed Christ-centered praying among the Protestant speakers.
For the first time in years, not a single Orthodox cleric was visible at the event. The Moscow Patriarchate explains increasingly that the Prayer Breakfast’s format does not sync with Orthodox convictions. In the Orthodox tradition, public prayers need to be prayed by Orthodox clergy, and joint prayer with non-Orthodox Christians is now discouraged. Consequently, the Orthodox are championing their own inter-confessional forum. Its first public sessions may take place as early as Fall 2011.
Yet Russia’s National Prayer Breakfast movement is far from dead. A similar Breakfast was held in St. Petersburg on 22 March; another will take place in Krasnoyarsk/Siberia in April. Next year’s Moscow event is scheduled for 13 March.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 21 March 2011
This release is informational in character and expresses only the views and assessments of its author. Release #11-02, 995, 6.558 keystrokes and spaces.