Critics Assail Revived Russian Church's Kremlin Ties

The world's second-largest church chose a new leader this week. Metropolitan Kirill will lead the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become wealthy — and highly visible — since it emerged out of decades of suppression under the Soviet Union.

But critics say the institution isn't concerned nearly enough with serving ordinary Russians, such as the ones attending a daily service in central Moscow on a recent day.

A choir sings under the vaulted ceilings of the old church. There are no pews here. People stand, coming and going as they please.

The air is thick with the smell of incense and smoke from candles crackling in front of gilded icons. There is a serene sense of timelessness, as if nothing has changed in hundreds of years.

Outside, the building's intricate facade is topped by the kind of gold onion domes that symbolize Russia itself. The Orthodox Church is one part of Russian life that has survived revolutions, world wars and other political turmoil.

Standing on the icy street after the service, parishioner Liudmilla Mamaenkova says Russian Orthodoxy is a central part of being Russian.

"The church is everything to us. Every believer has a duty to join the Russian Orthodox Church and attend services regularly," she says.

Church and state are officially separate in Russia, but many see the Orthodox Church as the official religion in all but name. In the 1990s, the state gave the church tax breaks to trade in alcohol and tobacco, enabling it to become a lucrative business. The previous patriarch, who died in December, was often seen on state television with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

But while more than two-thirds of Russians say they are Orthodox believers, only about 10 percent actually attend services regularly. Conservative voices in the church, such as Deacon Andrei Kuraev, blame the low level of attendance on the church's attempt to cultivate political influence with the Kremlin. He says that has forced the church to sacrifice its independence.

"The church must serve the people, not the authorities. Without an independent church that plays a key role in society, Russians will lose their power in this part of the world and become just another ethnic group," he says.

To boost the number of young believers, the church has pushed to make classes about Russian Orthodoxy mandatory in state schools. It also has railed against foreign missionaries and campaigned against reconciling with the Catholic Church.

Human rights activist Yuri Samodurov says that is because the church wants to monopolize Russians' religious beliefs.

"The church insists on dictating Russians' morality and ideology, because its main goal isn't to help people, but to increase its own power," he says.

In 2005, church leaders denounced Samodurov for organizing a controversial art exhibit. A state court later found him guilty of "instigating religious and ethnic hatred."

On Tuesday, just before being selected as the new patriarch, Metropolitan Kirill led priests and monks in prayer inside Moscow's massive new Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Kirill is considered a modernizer in a highly conservative church. But he has criticized the idea of "human rights" as "a cover for lies and insults to religious and ethnic values."

Samodurov says the church will see no real change as long as its support for the country's authoritarian leaders gives it a privileged role in society.

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