For the Russian Orthodox Church, in which anti-Western sentiment runs high, recent prayer services for U.S. victims of September 11's terrorist attacks mark a shift towards a more sympathetic attitude to Americans. This change coincides with the increasingly pro-Western position of President Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church, which has historically felt squeezed between Muslim and western Christian worlds, has trodden carefully between what has been seen as two sides of a conflict of civilizations.

With the musty scent of incense hanging in the air, Metropolitan Sergy, chancellor of the Moscow Patriarchate, conducted a recent memorial service "for all those in the American land killed suddenly and senselessly."

"With the saints rest the souls of thy servants, O Christ, where there is neither pain, nor grief, nor sigh, but life everlasting," sang the clergy and choir from verses of the Panikhida, an Orthodox requiem service, in Old Church Slavonic.

A similar service was held at St Catherine's church, which belongs to the Orthodox Church in America and which ministers to English-speaking Orthodox Christians in Moscow. Orthodox churches in the United States also held memorial services.

The services took place in keeping with the Orthodox tradition of commemorating the dead on the 40th day after death. According to this tradition, the soul of the dead finally leaves the earth on the 40th day and ascends to heaven or descends to hell, hence the call for special prayers on this day.

"Thousands of innocent people died because of the madness of those who want to reshape the world according to their design," Metropolitan Sergy said in his sermon. "They forgot that God did not give man free will for enmity and murder."

Since September 11, when the attacks in the U.S. generated a mass outpouring of grief among Russians, the Moscow Patriarchate has had to face difficult choices of policy. The church leadership expressed its condolences to the American people, and memorial services were held in many Moscow churches. On the other hand, some Orthodox publications argued that Russia should not side with either the western or Muslim world in the conflict, but rather seek a "third path."

In a series of public statements, the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's department of external relations, Metropolitan Kirill said that the United States had "moral and religious grounds" for a response to the terrorist attacks. But he warned of the dangers of a disproportionate response, which could cause the death of innocent people.

Article continues below

"If as a result of the response a new wave of confrontation begins in the world, the U.S. will be responsible for it," Kirill said in a televised interview. "But if the military strike is adequate, if justice is restored and those who committed this horrific crime are punished, military action will fit in the frame of a just war as it is defined by the Christian tradition."

The church's difficulty is in part explained by the fact that the Russian church has been one of the most vocal critics of what it considers to be U.S. "hegemony," globalization, and promotion of secular liberal values throughout the world. Anti-American sentiments ran particularly high in 1999, when NATO bombed Yugoslavia.

Kirill said that only a "multi-polar" world and coexistence of different civilizations could lead to peace in the 21st century.

"Of course, terrorist acts cannot be justified," he said. "Those who blew up buildings in New York and Washington have clearly demonstrated an intent to change the existing world order according to their beliefs."

"But they chose as targets not Buddhists, Roman Catholics, or Orthodox," he continued. "Their blow was ultimately directed at the system of liberal values, which is asserted in the modern world through a network of international organizations as a universal model of civilization which has no alternatives."

Discussions about the terrorist attacks and the U.S. response are particularly delicate in Russia because the country has a large and growing Muslim minority of about 20 million who are extremely sensitive to broad accusations of "Islamic terrorism."

In Russian Muslim publications and statements by some Muslim activists, the terrorist acts are often described as "provocations." However, the link between the acts and Afghanistan is questioned.

The Inter-Religious Council of Russia, which brings together Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist officials, issued a statement urging politicians and journalists to demonstrate "wisdom and caution" in their approach to the conflict.

"Our religious communities condemn the terrorist acts in America in the same way as they condemned explosions of apartment buildings in Russian cities, kidnappings, and murders in Chechnya, destruction of Christian churches and Muslim mosques in the Balkans and defilement of synagogues in Russia," the statement said. It urged the public "to draw a distinction between fanatical terrorists and well-intentioned followers of Islam."

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

The official site for the Russian Orthodox Church has information on the mission of the church and history.

For more Russian religion news, see Paul D. Steeves's News About Religion in Russia site.

Christianity Today essays and analysis following September 11 include:

Rally Round the Flag | America may not be God's chosen nation, but it does have a mission that churches can support. (Nov. 7, 2001)

Wake-up Call | If September 11 was a divine warning, it's God's people who are being warned. (Nov. 5, 2001)

White-Powder Worries | The anthrax scare has put us on edge. How shall we deal with wartime fears? (Nov. 1, 2001)

Where Was God on 9/11? | Reflections from Ground Zero and beyond. (Oct.23, 2001)

Christian History Corner: Apocalypse Not | As speculations mount regarding the significance of recent events in God's plan for the end of the world, voices from the past urge restraint. (Oct.12, 2001)

Judgment Day | God promised that calamity would follow disobedience. So why are we quick to dismiss it as a reason for the September 11 attacks? (Sept. 25, 2001)

Now What? | A Christian response to religious terrorism. (Sept. 21, 2001)

To Embrace the Enemy | Is reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)

After the Grave in the Air | True reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)

Was September 11 the Beginning of the End? | Observers say geography and gravity of attacks have led to little prophecy speculation. (Sept. 19, 2001)

Books & Culture Corner: The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)

Taking It Personally | What do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)

A Wake-Up Call to Become Global Christians | The deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)

God's Message in the Language of Events | In the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)above all else.

Reflections on Suffering | Classic and contemporary quotations for dark times. (Sept. 13, 2001)

When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)