Vladimir Putin

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

egular GetReligion readers are probably aware that I am a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Readers who have been paying close attention (including a few in Russia) know that I attend an Orthodox Church in America parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that — while largely made up of converts — has Russian roots and members who are from Russia and Romania. When our senior priest (from the American South) does some of the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, you can hear people reciting the rite by memory.

When I talk to Russians about subjects linked to Russia and the church, I hear all kinds of things — ranging from realistic concerns about life in Russia to worries and frustrations about how Americans often forget that there is more to Russia and the Russian worldview than Vladimir Putin.

However, when you read U.S. news reports about Russian Orthodoxy the assumption is always that the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime are one and the same. However, many Orthodox believers reject much of what Putin does and are concerned about the church being tied too closely to the state. Russians also see tensions between church and state that are rarely mentioned in news reports, tensions linked to political and moral issues, such as abortion. In other words, they see a more complex puzzle.

Every now and then I see a U.S. media report that — for a second — seems aware of complexities inside Russia and inside the Russian Orthodox Church. The Religion News Service recently ran this kind of feature under the headline: “Russian Orthodox Church considers a ban on blessing weapons of mass destruction.” Here is the overture:

MOSCOW (RNS) — Early one evening in May 2018, days before the annual parade celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II, a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt on the Russian capital’s ring road.

As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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More spilled ink, as global Byzantine puzzle games continue with the Orthodox in Ukraine

More spilled ink, as global Byzantine puzzle games continue with the Orthodox in Ukraine

I know that this will be hard for many journalists think about the following concepts without their heads exploding, but let’s give it a try. After all, the events unfolding at Orthodox altars in Ukraine are very important and may take years or decades to settle — not that readers would know that from reading mainstream news reports on the schism.

Ready?

First and foremost: There is no Eastern Orthodox pope, no one shepherd who can snap his fingers and make Orthodox disputes vanish.

Yes, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are key players in the current drama. However, this dispute between Moscow and Constantinople transcends politics and enters the world of doctrine and church polity. The ties that bind between Kiev and Moscow are far older than the current politics of Europe and Russia.

Yes, it is true that are are arguments about whether the Ecumenical Patriarch — based at the tiny, embattled Orthodox church in Turkey — has the power to grant “autocephaly” (creating an autonomous national church) in Ukraine. However, these debates are not, ultimately, between Poroshenko and Putin — they are between Patriarch Bartholomew and the rest of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs.

With that in mind, before we turn to the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Christianity Today, let’s pause for a recent word from the ancient church of Antioch.

Responding to Patriarch Bartholomew’s request to recognize the results of December 15’s “unification council” and the nationalist Ukrainian church created there, His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch urged Pat. Bartholomew to stop the process of granting autocephaly until a pan-Orthodox solution could be found to the Ukrainian crisis. 

In other words, this Ukrainian issue is creating a global Orthodox crisis. Thus, it will require a global Orthodox solution. Repeat: There is no Orthodox pope.

Additional information:

The Patriarch of Constantinople sent letters of appeal to recognize the Ukrainian church to all the primates of the Local Orthodox Churches on December 24. The request has thus far been explicitly denied by the Polish and  Serbian Churches. 

In his response, Pat. John emphasized that the events surrounding the creation of the new church cause concern not only because of the disunion they create in the Orthodox world, but also because the opinion of the Local Orthodox Churches was not taken into account by Constantinople. …

Journalists: Please look for this. The issue here is not what churches remain in Communion with Moscow or the Ecumenical Patriarch. The issue is how many other patriarchs declare themselves to be in Communion with this alleged new church in Kiev. This is what matters to the Orthodox, not whether Kiev is in Communion with the U.S. State Department and the European Union.

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It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It is hard to evaluate the journalistic quality of a New York Times report about a complicated, emotional religious dispute with 1,000 years worth of history when the report — when push comes to shove — is a one-sided look at its contemporary political implications.

Once again, politics trumps church history and doctrine. Surprised?

I am referring to the clash in Ukraine between Orthodox Christians who back centuries of ecclessiastical ties between Kiev and Moscow and those who support the bid by President Petro O. Poroshenko, with the backing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to create an independent, canonical Ukrainian church. Here’s the overture for the recent report in the Times:

MOSCOW — Ukraine took a major step on Saturday toward establishing its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, setting the stage for increased tensions with Russia by altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kiev church answered to Moscow.

Some 190 bishops, priests and other church figures spent the day closeted in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev to elect the newly unified Ukrainian church’s head, Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is scheduled to travel in January to Istanbul, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to receive an official order granting autonomy.

Hundreds of supporters of the move cheered and some wept as President Petro O. Poroshenko, who had attended the session, emerged from the cathedral to announce that Ukraine had a new church leader.

Quoting from the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, Mr. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup,” and he called on supporters to remember the day’s events as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”

The assumption here is, of course, that (a) the tiny, endangered church in Constantinople has the power — there is no Vatican in Orthodox polity — to create an “autocephalous” Ukrainian church that will be recognized as valid by Orthodox churches around the world. Oh, and (b), the heart of this story is a conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and modern Europe, representing the free world.

Political sizzle always trumps church history.

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What does it mean when a member of Pussy Riot shows up at a Christian arts festival?

What does it mean when a member of Pussy Riot shows up at a Christian arts festival?

You’ve all heard of Pussy Riot, the defiant all-female Russian punk band that got headlines back in 2012 when several of them interrupted a prayer service -- invading the altar area -- at the Christ Our Savior Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow with anti-Vladimir Putin chants. (Tmatt covered that here). 

Since then, these anarchist/feminists have been known for disrupting everything from a World Cup game to the Moscow subway. But they haven’t been particularly known for any religious sentiments, other than a song addressed to the Virgin Mary called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.”

So I was amazed to read a Religion News Service story about one of its members appearing at Greenbelt, a famous Christian music festival held in the U.K.

From its shock-effect name to its defiant activist tactics, little about the Russian band Pussy Riot would suggest that the punk group is on a holy mission.

But after an appearance last weekend (Aug. 26) at Greenbelt, the U.K.’s foremost Christian arts festival, Pussy Riot’s co-founder Maria Alyokhina explained that the act, beginning with the 2012 protest that resulted in two years in a labor camp, should be understood as a “Christian gesture.”

Pussy Riot is better known in the West for its feminism and political resistance -- which almost prevented Alyokhina from making her date at Greenbelt. The Russian authorities had barred her from boarding a plane earlier this month as she headed on a tour of British arts events, telling her she was forbidden to leave the country until she completed a 100-day community service sentence for taking part in an unauthorized protest in April.

But Alyokhina, 30, is not easily deterred. She drove instead, crossing at an unsecured section of the border, and kept going until she reached Lithuania, where she boarded a plane to Britain.

What the festival-goers in England got was Alyokhina and other members of her band putting on a show, called “Riot Days.”

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Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

The world is inundated with sad examples of persecuted religious, ethnic and racial minorities. Journalistically speaking, however, each case may be reduced to a “story,” each competing for press attention at a time when shrinking industry resources and an ominous uptick in American political chaos make grabbing international media coverage increasingly difficult.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses is one such religious minority. The Kremlin has come down on Russian members of the faith like a ton of bricks.

The situation, from time to time, gains some coverage from western media elites. That attention soon fades, however, which prompts the following question: Why do some persecuted minorities trigger persistent journalistic attention while others do not?

I’ll try to answer that question below. First, though, let’s get current on the plight of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses.

This Los Angeles Times piece about their seeking refuge in neighboring Finland is a good place to start. Here’s a snippet from it:

In the 16 months since Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group on par with Islamic State, raids and arrests of the religion’s estimated 175,000 members in the country have increased rapidly. The ruling criminalized practicing the religion and ordered its 395 branches closed. Members face prosecution for doing missionary work, a fundamental part of the faith.

There are now an estimated 250 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum in Finland. They wait out their asylum applications in several refugee centers across the country, including the Joutseno refugee center outside Lappeenranta in southeastern Finland.

How has this impacted individual Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Read on.

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Moscow speaking: GetReligion reader chimes in on Washington Post, the 'Putin Generation'

Moscow speaking: GetReligion reader chimes in on Washington Post, the 'Putin Generation'

Isn't the Internet an amazing thing?

I am old enough that this thought still pops into my mind every now and then, just like in the old days when I would pause in wonder while doing a live chat session online with a friend of mine in New Zealand.

Anyway, I would like to flash back to my earlier post that ran with this title: "Dear Washington Post international desk: Does Russia's 'Putin Generation' have a soul?" It focused on an international desk Post feature built on poll data showing that young Russians are among the biggest fans of that Vladimir Putin guy.

This alleged "Generation Putin" liked their nation's current stability and its economic prospects. The Post feature, however, noted that they have, in the past, "taken to the streets in protest" of some Putin policies and that there are many who like Putin despite the fact that they "espouse some liberal values."

This made me curious what kinds of values we might be talking about -- especially on issues linked to religion, culture and morality.

What about faith? What about marriage and family? In other words, I wondered if this interesting piece was haunted by "religion ghosts."

At the end of the post I added this note:

Read the whole piece and let me know if you sense the same hole in this piece, the gap where the Russian soul is often discussed.
I know, in particular, that GetReligion has readers in Russia. Care to drop me a note?

Sure enough, I veteran GetReligion reader chimed in with feedback. Thus, I'd like to do something that I wish I could do more often -- which is run a long, news-focused note from a reader. I know who this reader is and confirm that he is a professional in Moscow. So here goes:

Moscow speaking.
I have only read this post and watched the interview clips on the page of the Washington Post article, but I am already cringing.

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Dear Washington Post international desk: Does Russia's 'Putin Generation' have a soul?

Dear Washington Post international desk: Does Russia's 'Putin Generation' have a soul?

I have spent the last several days on the West Coast, hanging out with a circle of journalists from around the world -- think Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa, etc.

As you would expect, when journalists get together it's rather common for us to talk about the news and, in particular, stories in major media that have captured our attention. #DUH

One of the stories that came up for discussion this week was a Washington Post feature that ran with this headline: "The Putin Generation -- Young Russians are Vladimir Putin’s biggest fans." The bottom line: That headline clashed with the impressions several of these journalists have had in the recent past while working in Russia or talking with Russia experts.

In particular (here comes the GetReligion "ghost"), several journalists wanted to know more about the role that moral, cultural and religious issues -- think LGBTQ questions, to name one example -- played in this equation.

To be blunt: The story contains no information on moral and religious issues at all. However, there is evidence that it should have.

Hold that thought, while we explore the overture:

KURGAN, Russia -- A young woman, riding a city bus to her journalism class, enjoys using the time to scroll through an independent news site that can be scathing in its reports on Russia’s authoritarian president -- leaving her to wrestle with a paradox, the paradox of her generation.
“What the Russian soul demands,” says Yekaterina Mamay, “is that there be one strong politician in the country who resembles a czar.”
In Russia’s upcoming presidential election, the 20-year-old student, who knows that journalism in her country is not free, will nonetheless vote to reelect Vladimir Putin.
Here, where the forest of the taiga meets the grassy steppe, the “Putin Generation” is no different from anywhere else across Russia’s vastness: coming of age without a rebellious streak. Today’s Russian young adults have no memory of life before Putin, who first took power as their president 18 years ago. Some have taken to the streets in protest, but social scientists say many more have grown to accept him. Polls show that Putin enjoys greater support among youth than among the public at large.

OK, I'll ask: What kinds of issues have driven young Russians into the street in the past? What Putin-era issues have they protested?

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With Russia all over U.S. news map right now, how fares its huge Orthodox Church?

With Russia all over U.S. news map right now, how fares its huge Orthodox Church?

Most news calendars list Russia’s presidential vote on Sunday, March 18. That’s the very date the nation officially confiscated Ukraine's Crimea with its 2 million people and 10,000 square miles of territory.

Journalists can relax and write up incumbent Vladimir Putin's victory in advance, then simply toss in ballot numbers. As in the grim Soviet past, another term is foreordained by manipulation of the process and consequent lack of competition. No need for the April runoff.

Russia over-all is of keen interest  for Americans and the American media with those allegations of campaign “collusion,”  revelations about efforts to manipulate U.S. voters in 2016 and 2018, debate over sanctions, and the ongoing mystery of why autocrat Putin is a rare politician President Donald Trump does not insult.

In addition to politics, there’s a historic religious turnabout in Russia that stateside reporters could  well develop through interviews with the experts. The dominant Orthodox Church, which managed to survive Communist terror and regained freedom, has latterly emerged as a strategic prop for Putin’s Kremlin. 

If that election day peg doesn't work for your outlet, another signal event comes July 17. That's the Orthodox feast day of the doomed final czar, Nicholas II, and his family, shot to death by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918 and canonized by the national church in 2000 as saints and "passion-bearers."  

The Economist published a solid Russian Orthodox situationer February 3 that’s behind a pay wall, so The Guy will summarize key points for any writer interested in this. (Side comment: It’s hard to make do without this British newsweekly despite the $152 subscription price. It echoes the happy heyday when Time and Newsweek had substantive foreign news sections competing each week, drawing upon ample field reporting and research, all neatly distilled by a knowledgeable writer into a readable page.)

The magazine found a great lede. Each January 18, masses of Russians cut cross-shaped holes into lake ice and plunge into the sub-zero waters to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ. This year, campaigner Putin joined the throng at Lake Seliger, crossed himself, and leaped in.

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