There has been much controversy in Russian society about whether the fundamentals of the Orthodox culture should be taught at secular schools, whether there is a need to introduce the institution of military clergy, and how many adherents of various faiths are there in Russia. Many people also cannot remain indifferent to manifestations of nationalism in Russia and religious tensions in Ukraine.
Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia expressed his opinion on these and other issues in an interview with the Interfax-Religion web-site.
- Your Holiness, what do you expect from the upcoming world summit of religious leaders due in Moscow in July this year?
- The world summit of religious leaders in Moscow, initiated by the Russian Inter-Religious Council with our Church's direct involvement, will be a convention of the leaders of the most influential religious communities, including the Christian, Judaic, Muslim, Buddhist and some others. The summit will be a presentation of contemporary religious traditions in all their diversity.
It is logical that this meeting will hear various views on the challenges facing religions in the world these days and the responses that should be given to them. Therefore, we did not plan that the summit would provide some predetermined practical results.
At the same time, our forum is motivated by the unconditional desire to live in peace and mutual respect, being freely guided by our time-tested religious views.
It is important to bear in mind that the summit will follow a longstanding and tested model of inter-faith dialogue that rules out confusion of different faiths, dubious ritual experiments, or heated theological and political disputes. The religious leaders who will take part in our meeting realize the uniqueness of their beliefs and are determined to preserve them in their integrity, trying at the same time not to disturb peace and seeking cooperation for the common good. I hope that the summit would send a good message to the world, which is seeing more and more sufferings stemming from the people's desire to live without faith and conscience and follow only their sinful passions. God willing, our call will be heard.
- Is there any progress regarding the instruction of "Fundamentals of the Orthodox Culture" at state schools and the introduction of the institution of military clergy" Who are the main opponents of these initiatives?
- Public debates about the instruction of "Fundamentals of the Orthodox Culture" at secondary schools have been going on for a long time. Unfortunately, many opponents to the introduction of this subject in schools fail to understand our Church's position or deliberately distort it. We have been blamed for the desire to expand our congregation by using the resources of secular schools. There have been persistent attempts to suggest to the public that the Church is going to make "Fundamentals of the Orthodox Culture" mandatory. In fact, the matter involves a culture-related subject to be taught voluntarily by professional teachers. To have the opportunity to take this course is to exercise the right of a future citizen and an educated person to possess the necessary knowledge on his country's historical, religious and cultural heritage.
It is impossible to understand all the complexity of our history without the religious context. One cannot speak substantially about Russian literature, art, or music without understanding the religious basis of our people's life. Take, for instance, any album on ancient Russian art published in the years of the atheistic diktat. It is just amazing what tricks, awkward interpretations and omissions the editors of those publications had to resort to in order to make the reader overlook the obvious - the great spiritual tradition that gave us the masterpieces by Rev. Andrei Rublyov, Theophanes the Greek, Dionysius, and a countless number of icon painters, whose names we do not know. The same can be said about Russian literature, architecture, and music.
In my view, the philosophical monopoly of materialism, which still exists in the Russian education system, has been seriously detrimental to research in the field of humanities in this country. Soviet researchers achieved phenomenal success in the sciences, and some of their deserving descendants are still the best in the world, but not everything is so good in the humanities. I would suggest that the keeping this situation unchanged could be pernicious to this country's future.
You can also hear concerns that the instruction of "Fundamentals of the Orthodox Culture" would inevitably lead to the exacerbation of interfaith and interethnic tensions. The reality, however, shows just the opposite. "Fundamentals of the Orthodox Culture" are already being taught in many Russian regions, and no increase in interethnic or interfaith tensions has been recorded in a single one of them. On the contrary, thanks to the knowledge that young people gain by taking these courses, they come to better know, understand and respect each other.
By the way, many members of the Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist communities in Russia have repeatedly argued that the atheistic and agnostic legacy in Russian schools should be overcome. At the places where adherents of their religions live in large numbers and also at national schools in large cities, analogous courses based on faiths common for Russia could be taught instead of "Fundamentals of the Orthodox Culture" or simultaneously with it. This happens in many places now.
As regards military clergy, I would like to point out that, apart from the traditions that existed before the 1917 revolution, we have gained significant experience in giving religious guidance to servicemen in modern times. In other words, we do not have to start it from scratch. However, the practice of interaction between the Church and the armed forces still doesn't have a legislative basis. A lot hinges on personal contacts, and the existing agreements are declarative in their nature and depend largely on current trends. There have been proposals that the current state of affairs, which is much praised by soldiers and officers, be consolidated and developed. I would like to emphasize that these initiatives have been put forward by government agencies rather than the Church. In my view, this vividly confirms that there is public demand for the presence of clergymen in the army.
The opponents to these initiatives say that it is dangerous to divide the army into groups depending on their religious preferences. We agree with this and insist that the army should not become a ground for missionary competition. Only representatives of religious organizations whose followers serve in the army should be given the right to preach there. The Holy Synod has expressed its unambiguous position on this issue.
- What is your vision of the religious situation in Ukraine? Have there been any changes for the better or for the worse in the past year?
- Declarations by Ukraine's leaders about the need to equally protect the rights and freedoms of all religious organizations can only be welcomed.
However, these statements are not always heeded in the provinces. One of the most crying examples is the St. Trinity parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the village of Rokhmaniv in the Ternopil region. This community, led by its father superior, Archpriest Oleh Sirko, has been expelled out of its church and now has to conduct religious services under the open sky.
We are bound to worry about the fact that Ukrainian Orthodox Christians remain divided. This split is like a wound on the Church's body. It also creates a painful split in Ukrainian society. Nevertheless, the Church itself should seek ways to remedy splits, without any interference from the outside. Therefore, attempts by some government officials to resolve this problem for the Church can only cause anxiety in believers.
Unfortunately, relations between Orthodox believers and Greek Catholics in Ukraine are also far from appropriate. The situation deteriorated with the transfer of the residence of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, from Lviv to Kyiv and the change of his title to Major Archbishop of Kyiv and Halych. The Orthodox public views this step as unfriendly. It exacerbated tensions in Ukrainian society. I hope that the new Ukrainian government will pay more attention to the specifics of church affairs, avoid interference, and more carefully protect the rights of all traditional religious communities.
- There have been conflicting reports about the number of Orthodox believers in Russia of late. Does the Church have an official view on this issue? What is your estimation of the number of adherents to other religions, like Muslims, Protestants, or Catholics?
- It has always been difficult to count believers in this country. In the time of state atheism, people did not advertise their religious affiliation for well-known reasons. Today, various sociological services give different figures regarding the number of followers of this or that religion, but these calculations often seem to be biased. Unfortunately, you can often see that the number of followers of one religion is maximized, while the others are minimized. I am convinced that in any case the counting of the number of followers of any faith should not be over-politicized or aimed at deriving some benefits or gaining some advantage in a dialogue with adherents of other faiths.
In addition, it is hardly possible to find commonly acceptable criteria to assess a person's religious faith.
There have been no recent surveys on this account that would embrace the entire population of Russia. Even during the 2002 nationwide census, people were not asked about their faith. In our view, the census would have been fuller if this question had been included in the questionnaires.
As for the number of adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is hardly possible to name the exact figure, for a person's religious choice and spiritual life is often concealed from a sociologist's searching look. I believe the share of Orthodox Christians baptized in our Church is 70% to 80% of the entire Russian population. In other words, the Orthodox believers are still in the overwhelming majority in this country.
What can be said much more definitely is that the comprehensive revival of the Church and expansion of the people's involvement in the activity of Orthodox communities is continuing. We have seen significant changes in the age structure of our congregation in the past several years. In many places, people of a young and middle age make the majority of all worshippers. The current Great Lent has shown us overcrowded churches, which often fail to accommodate all parishioners. In other words, Russia is witnessing a second wind in its spiritual revival now.
You can find different explanations for this rejoicing fact, but what is undeniable is that we have witnessed God's true miracle - the return of a living and active faith into people's hearts. I am deeply convinced that this cannot fail to favorably affect our people's lives.
- In what direction the Orthodox Church's dialogue with Islam is developing now?
- This dialogue is being maintained chiefly through the Interreligious Council set up in 1997, which brings together representatives of the four largest religions in Russia, i.e. the Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. The dialogue is aimed primarily at finding ways to resolve the most urgent problems that society faces.
I can reaffirm that our relations are developing successfully, despite attempts by some foreign centers and homebred extremists to test religious peace in Russia. I am sure that the wisdom of religious leaders, primarily Islamic ones, will make these attempts fruitless.
Exchange of opinions and cooperation in social affairs between various religions does not exclude doctrinal debates, which are aimed at helping clarify the sides' positions regarding problems that call for a thorough philosophical analysis. For instance, Tehran hosted the 5th meeting of the Russian-Iranian commission on dialogue between Islam and the Orthodoxy in late February and early March. The meeting dealt with "Eschatology and Its Influence on Modern Life." The discussion exposed both similarities and differences on these issues between the Christian and Islamic doctrines. The participants in the meeting also strongly denounced the increasing instances of insults of believers' feelings in various countries.
- How dangerous do you think are xenophobia, extremism and ethnically motivated crimes? What should be done to overcome them?
- It is horrible when someone is insulted, beaten up, or even killed only because of their ethnicity or the color of their skin. Such crimes, as well as the desecration of houses of worship and public offenses of ethnic or religious feelings, must be punished with the utmost rigor of the law. And society should react to such crimes regardless of who suffered from them - a [ethnic] Russian or a member of another ethnic group, our citizen or a foreigner, because ethnic and religious feelings are very delicate to any person, whether he belongs to a minority or majority.
In the end, the best way to fight extremism is through education. A true believer and educated person will never become an extremist, fanatic, or aggressive nationalist. This is why our Church is insisting that schoolchildren be taught about various peoples and religions and, what is most important, about their own faith and culture, be it Orthodox, Islamic, Judaic, Buddhist, or some other. Without the right education, we will never get rid of our social vices. It is through school, culture, and the media that people should be taught patriotism, morals in private life, family and society, and a careful and respectful attitude to those surrounding them.