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 his own conservatism and that of the Russian Orthodox Church in the run-up to his election, asserting in speeches that "I speak out categorically against any reforms."
When Alexy II refused to see Benedict XVI in 2007 due to what he described as the Catholic Church's "expansionism," it was Kirill who received the pope. A meeting with Kirill in his role as patriarch, however, is unlikely "until the Catholics take steps which would be considered improvements by the Russian Orthodox Church," says Serafim Gan, chancellor of the synod of bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Gan expects Kirill to continue Alexy II's policies rather than expand on his former role in external relations.
It is unclear what this will mean for Russia's registered Baptists. Yoder points to work between Kirill and the RUECB on promoting family values. He says that before he was elected patriarch, Kirill had suggested that their talks resume.
While some consider Kirill the most independent of the candidates for patriarch, most assume he will have a close relationship with Russia's political leaders, even if he helps his church regain some autonomy.
"The state pretty much has the upper hand," said Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18 News, a religious freedom watchdog. "The Russian Orthodox Church cannot make the state do anything the state does not already want to do."
Despite ongoing discrimination, observers point out that religious freedom has drastically improved in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. "You could want better relations, [such as] the right to build bigger and better churches," said Michael Bordeaux, founder of the Keston Institute, which studies religion in current or formerly Communist countries. "Despite the restrictive law of 10 years ago, conditions are pretty good for Catholics and Protestants in Russia today."
Yoder agreed, especially when Russia is compared with surrounding countries such as Belarus and Uzbekistan, where religious rights are worse. Today, he said, "Protestants are fleeing to Russia."
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.