Joint Orthodox-Pentecostal patrols proposed
M o s c o w – On 27 August, Russia’s largest and busiest Protestant union, the 400.000-member-strong “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), lofted the unusual proposal that inter-confessional patrols guard church property. In mid-August, radical leftists, rightists and feminists had sawed down or felled outdoor Orthodox crucifixes in Russia and Ukraine. That aroused the emphatically-Orthodox “Holy Rus” organisation, which proposed creating volunteer, Orthodox patrols to guard sacred Orthodox sites and church dignitaries.
That in turn brought the non-Orthodox to their feet. The aged human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of Moscow’s Helsinki Group, complained that strictly-Orthodox patrols would cause very negative reactions. “Muslim, Jewish and atheist patrols would then also need to be instigated.” Alexei Mayorov, the Director of the Office for Regional Security in Moscow, added: “This is an incorrect starting point, for it would split society.”
Bishop Konstantin Bendas, number two in ROSKhVE’s hierarchy, then responded with the proposal that inter-confessional, unarmed patrols be created. “How should Orthodox guards react if someone attacks a synagogue in a neighbouring street? Would they just stand by and watch?”
ROSKhVE and its head bishop, Sergey Ryakhovsky, wrap themselves in the flag and call repeatedly for Russians to struggle jointly for the common good. They are committed to bringing Russia “back to its feet”. Its press service noted on 25 August that a congregation in Penza called “Living Faith” had participated once again in a flag day three days previous. Church members had decorated their cars with flags and slogans and joined other local firms and organisations in forming a column of honking vehicles which paraded through the city. This holiday, created in 1994, was organised in Penza by “Young Guard”, the youth organisation of the “United Russia” state party. Church pastor Sergey Kireyev explained: “Protestants are patriots in our country. History reports of very many Protestants who became famous scientists and government leaders. We want to prolong that tradition. . . We regard Russia to be a strong country with a terrific future. Protestants therefore pray for their country and desire that it might bloom and grow.”
Since 2006, a Protestant delegation has been permitted to lay wreaths at the Kremlin Wall in honour of the war dead every year on 8 May. ROSKhVE always appears in the front row on such occasions.
ROSKhVE and its head bishop respond quickly to national developments – a recent example involves the patrols. In a practice usually reserved for the Patriarch, Ryakhovsky issues statements of condolence when airplanes crash and natural catastrophes occur. The only other Protestant group which manages to stay in the race with him for the public eye are the news agency, magazine and webpage of the Evangelical-Christian bishop and construction czar Alexander Semchenko.
Semchenko, a former Baptist, also seeks the blessings of the highest government circles. In February 2012 agencies reported that he was the primary financier and builder of two new Orthodox churches on the outskirts of Moscow. This effort was interpreted as an expression of good will vis à vis the Moscow Patriarchate and resulted in Patriarch Kirill offering a public expression of appreciation. The businessman explained his actions by citing the fact that his staff includes Orthodox believers.
Yet “slower” Protestant circles (Baptists and Lutherans in particular) are unwilling to sanction Ryakhovsky’s and Semchenko’s thrust into the public arena. In recent years, both bishops have pushed for a “sobor”, a conference of all evangelical confessions under their own leadership. Yet the less-nimble unions and churches refuse to participate. Orthodox circles are also highly-reluctant to view these two bishops as the vanguard of the Protestant movement. Until roughly a year ago, the Moscow Patriarchate was pushing for “traditional” Protestants – mostly Baptists and Lutherans – to officially distance themselves from the “untraditional” Pentecostals and Charismatics. Yet the “traditional” proved unwilling to cooperate – that would indeed have brought too much estrangement into the Protestant scene.
Commentary – The politics of incremental change
One could claim that Bishop Ryakhovsky is aiming to cut a deal with state auspices: He is offering political loyalty, constancy and
hard work for the common good. In return, he expects a commitment to complete religious freedom and the ending of all discrimination. Moscow’s “Slavic Legal Centre”, which is supported heavily by
US-Charismatics, struggles mightily for the rights of Russia’s non-Orthodox. This strategy seems dialectical (contradictory): Though (or because!) churches under the ROSKhVE-umbrella have
received massive support in finance and content from Western sources, it is second to none in its support of the present Russian government.
Despite the many skirmishes on competency and jurisdiction, Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists and Adventists also support the policy of gradual, incremental change. Among them, the sweeping, systemic opposition of Yuri Sipko is viewed as embarrassing and disruptive. (The evangelist Sipko was until 2010 president of the largest Baptist union, the RUECB.) Their discomfort is understandable: How is one to expect concessions from politicians by appealing to their humanity when colleagues elsewhere are calling them “thieves and liars”? If there are no prospects for deposing the administration and forcing it to exile itself to London, then there is no alternative to a policy of continual, small steps. Fundamental massive opposition may have made sense for a short, interim period following 1989.
Orthodox-Pentecostal patrols are illusory. But the proposal was nevertheless a clever move – it jumbled the usual lines of Christian-Christian confrontation.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 04 September 2012
This is an independent journalistic release funded by “Presbyterian News Service”, Louisville/USA, “www.pcusa.org”. It is informational in character and does not express any official position of PNS. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #12-22, 885 words, 5.946 keystrokes and spaces.
All persons mentioned live in Moscow except for the pastor in Penza.
Though clearly-Charismatic churches form a major part of ROSKhVE, this union rejects the label “Charismatic” or “Neo-Pentecostal”. In the future I will probably therefore need to call them “non-traditional Pentecostals” in order to distinguish them from the older, traditional Pentecostal union now headed by Eduard Grabovenko.