20 September 2007, 11:57
Progress seen in U.S. take on religious freedom in Russia, but bias persists - Moscow Patriarchate
Moscow, September 20, Interfax - The U.S. State Department has been demonstrating more accuracy in its assessment of relations between the state and church in Russia, but it still lacks objectivity, the Russian Orthodox Church said.
"On the one hand the section dealing with Russia [of the U.S. State Department's 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom] is more accurate this time from the point of view of facts and estimates, which compares very favorably with the yearly reports issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where assessments are made and facts are handled rather freely," Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, told Interfax.
Many things have been cleared in contacts between representatives of the U.S. State Department and embassy, and Russian statesmen and religious figures, including with the clergy of the Russia Orthodox Church, he said.
"But there are many things in the report that could be challenged," he added.
"I don't think the Orthodox believers' rejection of other Christian confessions' expansion is something that cannot be accepted. Diplomats and officials must be aware that competition is not at all a mandatory aspect of inter-confessional relations, and that one group of Christians, while maintaining a dialogue, could fairly legitimately oppose the missionary activities of another Christian group," he said
"Enlightening polemics is possible, if it is tactful. But it may be tough sometimes. Denying it the right to exist would be tantamount to limiting freedom of speech," Father Vsevolod said.
Then again, the opinion of local residents should hardly be disregarded when churches are built or premises are leased out for church services, he said.
"Denying them the right to be involved in decision-making would be a departure from the principles of democracy," he said.
Strangely enough, the report reproduces "the well known myth that before 1917 church buildings had not belonged to the Church," Father Vsevolod continued.
"Even if the Church had been a state institution, its structures had their rights. They were independent legal entities as a rule, and no one challenged their ownership rights after the Church lost its state status. But the Bolsheviks subsequently misappropriated and divided everything between themselves. The legitimacy of that - at least ethical -is very doubtful," he said.
The report deals at length with instances of violence committed against believers, and the desecration of churches.
"But as previously, attention is on religious communities that have weight and influence in the United States. Nothing has been said about the Satanists' attacks against Orthodox churches," he said.
Finally, "there is one crucial difference between our positions. Society and, for that matter, the state have the right to provide selective support to individual religious communities, guided by their traditional status, popularity and level of public support," Father Vsevolod said.
"Likewise, the people can deny support to those who are linked with extremist groups. Moreover, one cannot disregard the existence of dubious religious groups and opinions constituting a public hazard," he said.
The position of the American state is different, he said. "But most of the European and world nations share a position in line with the one I have outlined - a position whose legal and political level is far higher than in Russia," Father Vsevolod said.