Article published Sunday, July 13, 2008
Standing before hundreds of Russian Orthodox clergy from Russia and the United States at an ornate Moscow cathedral, Alexii II, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, famously offered up his thanks:
First to then-Russian President Vladimir Putin and secondly to God.
That was last year, at a service marking the reunification of the Russia-based Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). ROC is by far the world's largest orthodox church, with estimated membership of 70 million to 80 million.
Keen on the idea of having billions of dollars worth of real estate returned to the church by the state, the ROC's Moscow Patriarchate - the seat of the patriarch - has begun acting as an ideological arm of the Kremlin to consolidate the Kremlin's hold of Russia and aid its quest to advance nationalism as the state's new ideology.
The split between the ROC and the ROCOR occurred soon after the Russian church in 1927 accepted Soviet authority over itself. Attempting to reunite the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) - an independent Orthodox church started in the late 1700s by Russian Orthodox monks arriving in Alaska - with its Russian roots is not a subject of an active public discussion.
The Moscow Patriarchate has replicated the Kremlin's intolerance toward any kind of dissent. Besides, the ROC's senior clergy have been accused of shady real estate deals.
This raises concerns over the reunification, which is trumpeted by Russian nationalists as a takeover by the ROC of its American rival and as evidence of Russia's re-emerging national pride and dominance in the world.
The good news is that - at this point - the reunification is nowhere close to being a takeover of any kind. Most important, the Moscow Patriarchate is not about to appoint ROCOR bishops or take control of ROCOR real estate, contrary to common belief on Moscow streets. So far the only major change brought by the reunification is that members of the two churches can now receive communion and get baptized by either church.
However, Kremlin-affiliated religious experts have suggested that the reunification would take several years to complete, without elaborating. The reunification was suggested by Mr. Putin five years ago.
The Kremlin has even instigated a campaign to start teaching Russian orthodoxy at public schools, which has since enjoyed a vigorous backing by Russian nationalist movements across the country.
So hardly anyone in Moscow was surprised when the Moscow Patriarchate backed the Kremlin's ploy to bring a Putin disciple to the Russian presidency via a sham election earlier this year, with Mr. Putin getting to stay at the helm of the nearly-totalitarian state as the new prime minister.
The ROC leadership has exhibited the Kremlin-style intolerance of dissent, most notably when the Russian Orthodox Church Bishops' Council reduced an anti-unification bishop to the rank of priest last month, skipping a mandatory trial in a church court in violation of the church's own code.
Moreover, the Kremlin has been inciting the ROC leadership to exercise stronger influence over Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Georgia. Both of those former Soviet republics have incurred the Kremlin's wrath by seeking NATO membership.
The Russian Orthodox in the United States would do well by showing vigilance about the re-unification process happening too fast.
Putin disciples, who are awash with oil money, cannot be allowed to use the Russian Orthodox Church to make inroads into the United States.
Also, one does not want to allow the shady dealings between the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate to throw a shadow on the Russian Orthodoxy in the United States.
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