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The Russian Orthodox Church is facing one of its biggest crises since it was freed from the restrictions of Soviet life a decade ago - the refusal of many church members to accept the government tax identification numbers known as INN.

Critics describe the bar codes on application forms for the ID numbers as a sign of the Antichrist referred to in the Book of Revelation. The problem, which has caused widespread consternation and even the threat of a church schism, has forced the church's head, Patriarch Alexei II, to address his flock in an unprecedented pastoral message, which was signed on March 4 and will be read in churches on Sunday, March 11.

The message, written after two days of discussion late last month by theologians and bishops in the church's Theological Commission, stops short of condemning the anti-INN movement as heretical, though some had hoped the patriarch would do this. The patriarch stated instead that acceptance or refusal to accept the tax number "is a citizen's free choice, but in no way is it a doctrinal matter."

But he made it clear that laymen and clergymen who urged people not to accept the INN were undermining the unity of the church.

"With all sincerity, love and pastoral care I would like to tell you: you have nothing to fear," the patriarch said in message, released by the Moscow Patriarchate on March 5. "If anyone, even the most eloquent person, continues to sow in your hearts false fears and doubts, do not believe him. Believe the church in its wisdom."

Russia's INN problem began about two years ago when the government began introducing the tax identification. The application form included a bar code which, as is required by international regulations, has three pairs of thin parallel stripes, ...

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