Thursday, April 13, 2006

Russia Jouns Ecumenical Carnaval

By Alexander Soldatov, The Moscow News

We have not seen the like of this since the Soviet era: More than 20 representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) attended the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at Porto Allegre, Brazil, February 14 through 23. At this inter-religious forum, Orthodox Russians discussed not only theological and humanitarian issues. Their mission also had a clear political agenda.

Background The ROC entered the world's largest ecumenical organization, uniting 350 churches, in 1961, on explicit orders from the country's ruling authorities. The incumbent patriarch, Alexy II, at that time a young bishop, was a member of the Moscow delegation at the General Assembly in New Delhi, where the ROC was formally admitted to the WCC.

In its reports, the KGB's Fifth Directorate, created especially to control religious activities in the country, liked to highlight its agents' "success stories" at the WCC. Indeed, the WCC was ideally suited for the propaganda of the Soviet Union's "peace-loving foreign policy." The organization, created to pique the Vatican, mainly united churches from developing countries, proclaiming leftist slogans. On the initiative of Soviet religious figures, the WCC regularly condemned "NATO's aggressive policy," neocolonialism, multinationals, and so on and so forth.

Church dissidents criticized the ROC leadership not only for the overpoliticization of the ecumenical movement. Suffice it to look at the photos and video footage of WCC events to understand how incompatible WCC membership was with Orthodox Christianity. Consider, for example, Archbishop Kirill (Gudnyaev) at the WCC General Assembly in Vancouver in 1983 taking part in the ceremony of erecting a pagan idol. Eight years later, in Canberra, he was pictured holding the Gospel at an ecumenical liturgy with a woman priest. Joint prayers and services with the non-Orthodox are prohibited by Church canons (specifically Canons of Apostles 10 and 45). The New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), which even anathematized ecumenism, accused the Moscow Patriarchy of breaching Church laws. The proactive propaganda conducted by the ROCOR in Russia in the early 1990s caused a crisis of ecumenism within the ROC which mulled plans of pulling out of the WCC, with only three Russian delegates being sent to the General Assembly in Harare in 1998.

The WCC leadership was scared, seeking compromise with the ROC and setting up a commission on WCC reform, which would allow the Orthodox to exercise the right of veto when voting on most essential issues. Meanwhile, the ROCOR is gradually reuniting with the ROC, so those who once anathematized ecumenism will soon join the WCC.

Problems, Conflicts Nonetheless, it would be premature to talk about "ecumenical renaissance" within the ROC. On the one hand, Alexy II receives the WCC general secretary and spotlights his "rich ecumenical past," while Metropolitan Kirill goes to Porto Alegre to pay tribute to the "lofty assembly." On the other hand, the selfsame Metropolitan Kirill attacks globalization, liberalism, and religious syncretism, while ROC print outlets publish his anti-ecumenical pamphlets. Father Vsevolod Chaplin, Metropolitan Kirill's deputy, recently published a satirical code of new ecumenical commandments, patterned after the biblical commandments, including these: "Thou shalt observe the Sabbath with Jews and Fridays with Muslims. On Sundays thou shalt go to the beach;" "Thou shalt not covet anything that is at odds with pluralism;" "Blessed are the pacifists for they are protected by armies;" and "Blessed are the oppressed in any sphere whatsoever for theirs is the Kingdom of Mass Media." His sarcastic view of ecumenism did not prevent Father Vsevolod from organizing his own road show at the assembly and making a politically correct report.

No, the ROC today is not what it was 15 years ago, but the WCC has changed little. Documents from the latest assembly are still marked by the same "left-wing infantile disorder" [reference to a work by Vladimir Lenin. - Ed.] and contain the same old calls for syncretism. Even a representative of the Orthodox Church - His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia - told the Port Alegre congress: "Christ is present in different religions under different names." By tradition, a joint prayer service was conducted to the sounds of Indian tambourines, attended by representatives of all eastern churches except the ROC. Yet a communique of the WCC Reform Commission, which was signed by the ROC, says that a call to joint prayer service still has priority.

Successes and Setbacks of Church Diplomacy Members of the ROC delegation made no secret of the fact that their mission in Brazil was linked with Russia's special interests in Latin America. This immediately evokes President Putin's statement about Russia's strategic partnership with Brazil and its intention to lobby for Brazil's status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Brazilian President Lula was given a rousing reception by Assembly delegates, but he also had informal meetings with ROC representatives, pledging support for ROC parishes in his country. While the Assembly was in session, Metropolitan Kirill consecrated the Church of St. Zinaida in Rio de Janeiro where more and more wealthy Russians are coming. The ROC "foreign minister" conducted another divine service at a Russian church in Sao Paulo.

The ROC's foreign-church interests and the Kremlin's foreign policy interests are becoming increasingly homogeneous, as the Russian foreign minister recently said in so many words when visiting the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Vienna. Few are surprised by the fact that the Russian Embassy in France has sued the Constantinople Patriarchy over an Orthodox cathedral in Nice. If the foreign policy interests of the Church and the State are so intertwined, isn't it time to think about creating a special body like the Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs that would coordinate interaction in this important sphere?

Could such a body, by providing Church diplomats professional advice, have prevented some diplomatic lapses that occurred in the ROC delegation's work in Porto Alegre? The Assembly's final resolution says that peaceful civilians faced with the threat of annihilation should be given the right to ask for external intervention and protection. According to Walter Altman, a WCC Program Guidelines Committee moderator, the authors of the document referred to, among other things, the situation of noncombatants in Chechnya and other trouble spots in the post-Soviet area. A special statement on the threat of nuclear proliferation says that one fundamental provision of the NPT, whereby countries possessing such weapons must not transfer nuclear technology to countries that do not have them, has now been breached in a certain part of the world. Was it not a reference to Russia's support for Iran's nuclear program?

Otherwise, the General Assembly at Porto Alegre was marked by general revelry and a carnival-like atmosphere. Informal contacts in chat rooms and at presentations were interspersed with concerts and dancing prayers. Colorful marches by Assembly delegates were devoted to the poor, social and sexual minorities, children, and disabled invalids. Not only ecumenical youth but also venerable bishops and pastors could be observed marching under psychedelic banners the color of the rainbow. The rainbow could be seen both in assembly halls and at ecumenical services. The rainbow is the WCC symbol of tolerance and openness.

At the closing session of the Assembly, the delegates passed several resolutions (on water shortages in Africa, observance of human rights in combating terrorism, and rapprochement with other religions) and elected a new 150-member Central Committee. The Orthodox Christians at the apex of the WCC pyramid will be represented by Albanian Archbishop Anastasy, a nominee of the Constantinople Patriachy, which is hostile toward the ROC.