From Russia, with Love
Hilarion Alfeyev, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk, located 80 miles northwest of Moscow, has a very big job. As head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion is responsible for talking to global Christianity on behalf of the 150 million people in Russian Orthodoxy worldwide.
Given his gift for languages, Hilarion arose as an easy pick for the job by Russian Patriarch Kirill. This year, the Russian-American Institute, a faith-based educational and support organization (formerly the Russian-American Christian University), helped Hilarion interact with a cross-section of evangelicals around the United States for the first time. Christianity Today deputy managing editor Timothy C. Morgan interviewed Hilarion while he was in Washington, D.C.
What's the purpose of your trip?
To establish contacts and to find common positions. Often we are in circles in our own ecclesiastical environment and don't communicate with those who might be our allies.
With regard to evangelical leaders, until recently we didn't have any systematic collaboration or dialogue or conversation. Many evangelicals share conservative positions with us on such issues as abortion, the family, and marriage.
Do you want vigorous grassroots engagement between Orthodox and evangelicals?
Yes, on problems, for example, like the destruction of the family. Many marriages are split. Many families have either one child or no child.
There are many incomplete families, not to speak of various homosexual unions, which are equated with the family. This completely changes the whole picture of human relationships. It directly affects the future of many nations. The sign of a spiritually healthy nation is that it expands—it grows. If it shrinks, it is a very clear sign of unhealthiness.
There is a perception that religious freedom is declining in Russia. Is the perception true?
It's a completely wrong perception. We have to ask what we mean by religious freedom. If it's a freedom for the sects, including dangerous sects, to buy time on television and to propagate their ideas, then I think we no longer have the freedom that existed in the beginning of the 1990s. But I think freedom was sometimes not used in a proper way. For example, I remember how every morning Shoka Asahara would preach on Russian television. He was later condemned to death in Japan for organizing a terrorist attack in the Tokyo underground.
With regards to traditional churches and religions: They have complete freedom of action. There is the law on the freedom of conscience, which makes a subtle distinction between traditional churches and religions that never existed in Russia. Religious communities are given a 15-year probationary period precisely for the reasons I described. They can act freely during this period. They can organize services. They can publish literature. They can do missionary activities. But they are not registered with the juridical status. After 15 years, they can be registered.
Is it the government's role to regulate minority groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Scientology? Or should the Russian Orthodox Church have influence there?
We should have some influence in this process, and we have a mechanism of dialogue within our government. For example, there is the interreligious advisory council to the Russian president. This includes representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Protestants, Islamic leaders, Jews, Buddhists, and others, who gather on a regular basis. One of their tasks is to monitor the development of religious freedom. They can give advice, if asked, to the president or to the government about how to deal with various sectarian movements and so-called new religious movements. Of course, they have only advisory status.