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, and between the three pairs various lines and spaces which signify numbers easily read by a scanner.

These three pairs of stripes, which bear no meaning and simply separate the parts of the code, look similar to the combinations of stripes used to mark the number six in the bar code system. This has prompted some critics to adopt the view of some fundamentalist Christians abroad who claim that computerized codes are based on the number 666, referred to in the biblical Book of Revelation (13: 17-18) as the "name of the beast."

The "666" critics claim that the Antichrist described in the Book of Revelation seeks to dominate the world through the global computerized control of individuals who will have computer chips implanted in their hands.

The critics claim that the tax IDs which "replace" Russian citizens' names with a number are the first step in this "satanic" process.

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In Greece, a largely Orthodox country, Christians have protested against the introduction of European passports with magnetic strips. And now in Russia, where theories about the threat of a Western "global government" abound, fears of the bar code have found fertile ground.

"People are not speaking against the tax number," one of the leading critics of INN, Konstantin Gordeyev, told the Theological Commission last month. "They are simply afraid that by taking one step [accepting INN], they will be gradually involved in this global information mechanism, and they will not be able to stop."

The church's hierarchy has been overwhelmed by the growth of opposition to INN. "It has spread so fast, we were caught off guard," a prominent bishop, who asked not to be named, told ENI.

In March last year the Russian Orthodox Church's synod issued a statement warning church members of the risk of seeing conspiracies in the numbers, but also calling on the government to find an alternative system to monitor taxpayers.

But the statement had little effect. The opposition movement has grown rapidly, despite changes in the application form made after the Tax Ministry held negotiations with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Valentina Kazakova, head of the Tax Ministry's section which keeps records of taxpayers, told ENI that about 1 percent of Russians had so far refused to accept the number. As the percentage of regular churchgoers is estimated at between 2 and 4 percent of the population, this is a significant proportion of practicing Orthodox Christians.

Speakers at last month's meeting of the Theological Commission said that the Moscow Patriarchate, Tax Ministry, State Duma and presidential administration had been flooded with petitions protesting against the tax IDs. They warned that if Patriarch Alexei and the synod gave their blessing to the "number of the beast," they would be accused of betraying Orthodoxy.

Rallies against the tax ID have been held in cities across Russia. Some parishes also refuse to buy bottles of wine bearing a bar code because they are afraid to use the wine at Eucharist. Some priests who accept the INN are being ostracized by their parishioners.

The opposition to INN is particularly strong in monasteries, where many monks harbor what are called "apocalyptic fears." Some monks at Russia's biggest monastery, Holy Trinity Saint Sergius Lavra, 50 kilometers from Moscow, have threatened to leave if the church's leaders accept INN. "The Holy Scriptures are the highest authority for us," a monk, who declined to give his name, told ENI. "We have the right and the duty to disobey the hierarchy if it detracts from Orthodoxy."

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Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, superior of a Moscow monastery and a leading Orthodox publisher, said that the anti-INN problem was a sign of the "sickness" of some sections of society. But he stressed that it reflected, though in a perverted form, Orthodox fears of globalization and the leveling out of cultures and individuals.

Speaking to ENI, a prominent Orthodox missionary, Deacon Andrei Kurayev, blamed the problem on a "natural penchant for magic among the Russian people."

After last month's meeting the Theological Commission stressed that the reaction to INN highlighted flaws in the church's educational and publishing activities.

Many observers agree. The fast growth of the Russian Orthodox Church in the decade since the end of communism has created a huge demand for priests in new parishes. As a result, many uneducated men have been ordained, and some of them have spread a doomsday mentality.

Patriarch Alexei said this week that the fear of INN had, like the fear of the ecumenical movement, been encouraged by those who wanted to push the Russian Orthodox Church into isolation.

In his message to be read on Sunday, the Russian Patriarch reminds Christians that neither salvation nor spiritual death can occur simply "for some external reason, without our personal participation."

But he promised that the church would continue to monitor technological developments which could hinder individual freedom.

Related Elsewhere

See our earlier coverage of the controversy, "For Many Russian Christians, Bar Codes Signal Coming of the Antichrist | Russian Orthodox Church trying to calm fears, but may be making it worse." (Apr. 14, 2000)

Paul D. Steeves's News About Religion in Russia site has been keeping a close watch on this story.

Concern over bar codes as sign of the Antichrist isn't limited to Russia. On his Web site, Jay James warns, "The mark of the beast may not be a tattoo or implanted chip at all, but it may represent a symbolic rejection of one's faith to God. But, the technology of implanted chips, bar codes and scanners can easily be seen as a tool for one such person as a antichrist or a government individual who is drunk with power, could easily mark and monitor it's citizens buying habits and movements in todays world." Likewise, in PropheZine, John L. Terry bemoans, "The UPC symbol is a series of bar codes which allow for computer identification of goods. Inventory, pricing, and tracking of goods by computer is now a reality. Eventually, no product produced in the world will be able to be bought or sold without this identifying mark."