2005-11-28 16:49:00

An open letter of Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill to the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice

Dear Ms. Rice,

The Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate has studied the U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Report for 2005. We recognize the detailed analytical work in the collection and assimilation of information that is carried out by the Secretariat you head in this sphere. We deplore the lack of similar interest in Russia to the situation in the USA. At the same time, we would like to make a number of important comments.

First of all, there are absolutely no grounds to the assertion that the Russian Orthodox Church 'has enjoyed a status that approaches official'. It ought to be noted that the Russian Orthodox Church is completely separate from the state apparatus and our clergy do not participate in the work of the state organs or political parties and movements. This, along with the absence of state funding of religious activity, is eloquent testimony to the Church's independence from the state.

The fact that His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II has a seat of honour when the President of the Russian Federation addresses the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation does not entail any concrete consequences for a church-state relationship. I would like to note that various customs are the background of protocol order in different countries. It is a long-standing tradition to give prominence to people who enjoy considerable authority and respect of their fellow citizens. They could be state heroes, persons involved in the arts and science, sportsmen, or religious leaders. The revocation of these established customs in the sphere of protocol would lead to the loss of identity, which is a cherished heritage of all nations, rather than to the observance of the principles of equality. Automatic use of these principles is inappropriate. This kind of approaches is also being used in the organization of prayer breakfasts in the USA.

Moreover, our Church is in no way striving to receive the status of a state Church, in spite of what the Report says. On the other hand, our study of past experience has convinced us of the necessity of constructing a partnership with the state, based on mutual beneficial cooperation in the interests of society as a whole. Such a partnership would presuppose the conclusion of agreements which would create the proper legal foundation for the Church's social ministry. It is therefore odd that the Report views the conclusion of agreements with the state as evidence of the Church's becoming a state Church. The practice of agreements with religious organizations, common throughout the world, is the best means possible of defining the status of equality in law, or that resembling it, of the sides coming to agreement. These agreements are not secret - the texts of them can be obtained easily in the relevant ecclesiastical and state institutions. The absence of such agreements with certain other religious organizations active in Russia is not evidence of discrimination.

Unfortunately, the state has far from progressed in many spheres in establishing with the Russian Orthodox Church a relationship that would best make real the religious freedoms of citizens. Thus, to the present day there is no regular chaplains' ministry in the army and prisons or the institution of embassy priests. Many in the military, prisoners and diplomats are deprived of the opportunity of realizing their religious freedom under normal conditions. At the same time, the institution of chaplains, as the experience of the U.S. and other countries has shown, does not contradict the principle of the separation of the Church from the state.

Of course, there are problems in Russia with making religious freedom a reality. Indeed, relations in this sphere have to be constructed anew after decades of state atheism and open aggression against all believers.

For example, the situation concerning the 'Careful! Religion!' exhibition became a clear case of the inflaming of religious strife and the denigration of believers' feelings. We opposed the actions of the exhibition's organizers precisely because from the very outset we saw in it a threat to public order and citizens' rights. Our aim was not to see punished those who put on public display these works filled with hatred towards all forms of religion in the worst traditions of the Soviet period, but to prevent such infractions of civil peace and tranquility in the future.

I am convinced that the primary reason for this situation is the negative attitude towards religion that for years was imposed by totalitarian rule through the atheistic educational system. In order to encourage respect for religious views, to return to people the moral foundation of life, destroyed throughout the Soviet and post-Soviet period, the Russian Orthodox Church has for many years now spoken out for the introduction of the foundations of Orthodox culture course in school on the basis of the free choice of students and their parents. Where this practice exists, it has not led to interethnic or interreligious conflict.

This subject is by its nature focused on the study of culture. Its introduction has the aim of imparting to children true information on the role of Orthodox Christianity in the history of our nation, which was deliberately passed over in silence in Soviet schools, built on the foundation of the diktat of materialism. Unfortunately, the school curriculum has not changed much since then. We believe that the imposed teaching of school subjects from a position of materialism is an infraction of parents' right to have their children educated in accordance with their beliefs. Moreover, it is evident that children who receive knowledge of Orthodox culture in school in accordance with the wishes of the majority of parents will be able to live peaceably in contemporary multicultural society. We therefore find it hard to understand why the problems that have arisen with the support for the foundations of Orthodox culture course at the federal level are labeled in the U.S. State Department Report for 2004 an achievement in the realm of religious freedom, and in the present Report are evaluated as such.

The Report devotes much attention to relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. I am convinced that the difficulties, which, alas, sometimes arise in our relations, are a clear testimony to the genuine freedom enjoyed by representatives of religious associations in Russia: each is free to act according to how they see fit, yet the actions of some can sometimes provoke disagreement in others. The contemporary state of affairs in our country affords us the opportunity of solving inter-confessional problems without any interference from an outside party within the process of constructive dialogue.

We were also surprised to read in the Report of the absence of a 'movement to promote interfaith dialogue'. The Interreligious Council of Russia, set up with our active participation, is an effective form of cooperation between the traditional religions of Russia: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. The leaders of the aforementioned religions cooperate in the resolution of problems important to our society. The Interreligious Council demonstrated true unity in relation to the terrorist threat by denouncing the use by terrorists of religious ideas for purposes of hate, which runs contrary to all religions. The example of good relations between religious leaders is an additional factor of stability, tolerance and mutual respect in society.

The reliability and value of any analytical work is dependent upon the choice of sources of information that are used in its compilation. I am bound to state that the Report's authors turned towards organizations which do not possess sufficient knowledge of the religious situation in Russia or which represent the interests of marginal groups and not of civil society as a whole, which is in its formation. Such an approach appears to be counterproductive. Let me note that the Russian Orthodox Church, which enjoys significant authority in Russian society, is by its status a non-governmental organization and it is from this position that it can impart its view of the situation with religious freedom in Russia to the world community. However, we unfortunately never received any inquiries from the Reports' compilers.

I am convinced that an acquaintance with the work that our Church carries out and the use of wider informational and public resources would add a greater sense of being informed and accuracy to U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Reports.

Yours truly,

Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad
Department for External Church Relations
Moscow Patriarchate