Protestants and Catholics in Russia are hoping the change in Orthodox leadership this winter will bring a thaw in ecumenical relationships in 2009.
In January, the Russian Orthodox Church enthroned its first new patriarch since Soviet days. Kirill, who led external relations for the church for 20 years, succeeds Alexy II, who died in early December.
Many evangelical churches in Russia currently experience discrimination under unevenly applied laws. Non-Orthodox organizations are not permitted to offer religious education and sometimes have trouble registering with the government for a legal identity. (Some organizations refuse to register on principle.) Also, changes to visa laws in 2007 have affected missions in Russia by requiring foreigners to leave the country for 90 out of every 180 days.
Evangelicals in particular are struggling against the concept that non-Orthodox Christianity is foreign and even unpatriotic. William Yoder, spokesperson for the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists of Russia (RUECB), explained the popular conception of religion in Russia: "If you're Russian, you must be Orthodox. By the same equation, if you're Baptist, you must be an American."
"Technically, religious freedom for all groups is protected in the law. But there is often infringement of this at the local level—often, unfortunately, at the instigation of the Orthodox hierarchy," said Anita Deyneka, president of Russian Ministries. "Protestants and Catholics are treated as interlopers. From Kirill's past, I don't think it's likely that this is [going] to be reversed."
The 16th Moscow patriarch in the history of the church, Kirill has been described by Western media as a savvy, prominent, and even glamorous modernizer. However, he emphasized ...