The Church Has Endorsed the Orthodox Activists

January 8, 2014
Photo: Reuters

Patriarch Kirill, traditionally head of not only all the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), but also the Moscow diocese, made a presentation at the annual meeting of the Diocesan Assembly of the capital’s clergy. The patriarch gave the believers a mandate to promote their own program to build 200 churches, which has recently faced resistance from residents in various areas of the capital. The statement from the head of the ROC comes amid a revitalisation of public Orthodox organisations, entering into confrontations with both residents of the capital districts and the city authorities.

“The activity of the Orthodox clergy and laity in the public sphere is an organic expression of our faith,” declared Patriarch Kirill. “As a case in point, I would like to remind everyone that despite the conspicuous shortage of Orthodox churches in the capital, the program for the construction of 200 new churches is meeting… opposition from individuals.” The head of the ROC cited an example of the believers’ activity: “The community for the revival of the church of Sergius of Radonezh on Khodynka Field, while encountering all sorts of adversities, isn’t being discouraged, isn’t losing heart, but is multiplying its efforts in this endeavour, with the assistance of the Orthodox community. And there are already results. Of course, this community is not the only one, and the zeal of the Orthodox people in support of building new churches is worthy of praise. In order to make it clear that citizens are interested in the construction of churches, many of them, they must unite in Christian action so that the authorities heed the voice of the Orthodox,” summarised the Patriarch.

Our publication has already reported on the activities of the “Orthodox community” in Khodynka (see NG-religion from 10/16/13). After holding protests in 2012, residents from neighbouring houses succeeded in blocking any construction on Khodynka Field, receiving a guarantee from the city authorities this summer. In turn, in September the head of the local Orthodox community, a priest, Vassily Biksey appealed for help from activists from the ‘Forty times Forty’ Orthodox movement, organising a mass prayer meeting on October 6 on Khodynka Field, involving athletes, and even an Orthodox motorcycle club and Hummer SUV enthusiasts. The final tally of the assembly was announced to the media as 1,500 people, however according to local residents and the Northern Administrative District prefecture (a copy of whose response was made available to the editor,) the prayer meeting was attended by around 100 people, most of them visitors.  The coordinator of ‘Forty times Forty’, Andrei Kormukhin, told the press office of the Foundation supporting the construction of 200 churches that unless officials allocated land for the church, “there will be a prayer meeting at Khodynka numbering not 1,500, but 15, 20, or 100 thousand.”

As a result, Moskomarkhitektura [Moscow planning authority) allocated a site for Biksey’s community. But the representatives of ‘Forty times Forty’ remained dissatisfied and staged a picket in front of the department on December 19, while a discussion was underway of the precise details of the church complex. As Kormukhin told the Interfax-Religion agency, the outrage of the activists was caused by the “invitation of a priest to the negotiations” with the authorities, or more precisely, that “the negotiations had not included the true initiators of the revival of the church – the Orthodox community,” apparently represented by ‘Forty times Forty’ themselves.

Another hotspot, where Orthodox activists, a significant portion of which are athletes, including boxers, are displaying their zeal for their faith, is the Ukhtomsky area in the Eastern district of Moscow. The first appearance of Orthodox athletes there took place on September 1 this year, as a result residents, frightened by them, made an appeal to Sobyanin (the editors have a copy). When a rally against the construction of the church was assigned for November 30, ‘Forty times Forty’ and its allied organisations, such as karate fighter, Andrei Kochergin’s National Conservative Party of Russia, announced a prayer meeting at the same place, but a little earlier. The situation, laden with impending clashes, was defused with the assistance of the Moscow authorities literally at the last minute.

Nevertheless, the Orthodox activists stood in prayer in Ukhtomsky yesterday. The meeting was announced on December 18, after a three-week pause, with the blessing of the hierarchy already cited. Interestingly, the announcement followed the posting of ‘Forty times Forty’ internet resources on the website of the Foundation supporting the construction of 200 churches. The chairman of the foundation is Bishop Tikhon of Podolsk (Zaitsev), and the board of trustees is headed by Patriarch Kirill. This change in the Orthodox activists’ pattern of behaviour, having long refrained from repeating their “stands,” almost exactly coincided with a statement of support from the Patriarch.

What could have caused such a change in the Church’s policy? The ‘200 program’ has faltered over recent days in several districts of Moscow. On December 16, at a hearing in the Babushkinsky area, residents blocked the discussion of a transfer of 0.4 hectares of land from the ‘Red Carpet’ for a church. On December 19 deputies from the municipal district of Lefortovo voted to ban any construction on the square by the Sputnik cinema, which was expected to be allocated for a church. Yesterday Ostankino district residents rallied against the construction of a church on the square on Novomoskovskaya Street. It appears that, against a backdrop of growing resistance by Muscovites to church construction, it was decided in the ROC not to neglect the street actions of their supporters, no matter how unruly they may be.

“On this field, the Orthodox people are providing an example of a peaceful and respectful defence of their interests,” said the Patriarch. However the Orthodox activists are not setting a positive example. By referring to protesting residents as nothing more than “churchophobes,” “Bolsheviks,” or “Satanists,” they exaggerate the confrontation and division in society.