RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Russia this week, the Russian Orthodox Church elected a new leader, following the death of its patriarch last month. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, this, the world's second-largest church, has become powerful, wealthy and highly visible. Still, critics say the church isn't connecting with many ordinary Russians. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

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GREGORY FEIFER: A choir sings at a daily service under the vaulted ceilings of an old church in central Moscow. 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.

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FEIFER: Outside, the building's intricate facade is topped by the kind of gold onion domes that symbolize Russia itself. The Orthodox Church is a part of Russian life that survived revolutions, world wars, and all the political turmoil. Standing on the icy street after the service, parishioner Liudmilla Mamaenkova says Russian Orthodoxy is a central part of being Russian.

Ms. LIUDMILLA MAMAENKOVA (Parishioner, Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow, Russia): (Through translator) The church is everything to us. Every believer has a duty to join the Russian Orthodox Church and attend services regularly.

FEIFER: 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. And 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're Orthodox believers, only around 10 percent actually attend services regularly. Conservative voices in the church, like Deacon Andrei Kuraev, blame the low level of attendance on the church's attempts to cultivate political influence with the Kremlin. He says that's forced the church to sacrifice its own independence.

Deacon ANDREI KURAEV (Russian Orthodox Church; Professor, Moscow Theological Academy): (Through translator) The church must serve the people, not the authorities. Without an independent church that plays the key role in society, Russians will lose their power in this part of the world and become just another ethnic group.

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FEIFER: Children practice choir singing in a chapel opposite the Kremlin. To boost the number of young believers, the church has pushed to make classes about Russian Orthodoxy mandatory in state schools. It's also railed against foreign missionaries and campaigned against reconciling with the Catholic Church. Human-rights activist Yuri Samodurov says that's because the church wants to monopolize Russians' religious beliefs.

Mr. YURI SAMODUROV (Director, A. D. Sakharov Armenian Human Rights Protection Center): (Through translator) The church insists on dictating Russians' morality and ideology, because its main goal isn't to help people, but to increase its own power.

FEIFER: 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.

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FEIFER: On Tuesday, just before being selected as the new patriarch, Metropolitan Kirill led priests and monks in prayer inside Moscow's massive new Christ the Savior Cathedral. Kirill is considered a modernizer in a highly conservative church. But he's 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. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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