2010-11-25 11:08:00

Russian Church is ready to help USA compile more objective reports on international religious freedom

The USA Department of State has recently published its annual report on international religious freedom. Many Russian religious experts believe that its section on Russia lacks objectivity and analytical depth the same as in previous years.

Deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations Hegumen Philipp (Ryabykh) tells Interfax-Religion correspondent Alexey Sosedov about strong and weak sides of the report and things that can be done to make it more objective in the future.

-Father Philipp, please share your impressions on the report

- Annual reports of the USA Department of State on religious freedom have long ago become an informational event for many experts and politicians in Russia. I think that such external view on religious freedom in Russia and other countries can be useful for international discussion over models of interaction between religion and society. Representatives of the Russian Church constantly participate in such discussion on the world arena and in certain countries, for example when registering our parishes and dioceses abroad or when discussing norms adopted by international organizations in this field.

Report 2010 has one essential advantage: it gives rather detailed and reliable description of legal norms, state and public measures taken to provide religious freedom and also some events in the country's religious life. The statistic data cited in the report mentions perish of Orthodox priests and damage inflicted to Orthodox churches.

However, an external view presented in the report has a significant defect that is difficult or perhaps even impossible to overcome. And we always have to consider this serious deviation when we read such reports and discuss them. I hardly believe that representatives of any country that openly declares its national interests will ever base their evaluations on real interests of the society whether it is the Russian society or society of any other country they try to analyze.

- With what particular things do you disagree in the analysis of the religious situation in Russia made by the USA authorities?

- First of all, the report absolutizes religious freedom and its provision at the expense of other important freedoms and values of public life the society can't do without. The report leaves an impression that democracy and prosperity in the country depend only on the society's ability to provide comfortable conditions for religious minorities or even micro groups of various kinds. Freedoms of other part of the society, security, preservation of original national, spiritual and cultural tradition fade at this background. The report considers it least of all that's why it criticizes a 15-year term for obtaining registration or the expert council at the Justice Ministry which was set up to find signs of extremism in religious literature.

The situation with religious education is covered absolutely tendentiously. It refers to lessons of Orthodoxy in schools, but keeps silence over the fact that in Islamic and Buddhist regions foundations of corresponding religious culture are taught. There are schools where Jewish tradition is in the curriculum. Results of the religious educational experiment held in the country's 19 regions sound strange. The report claims that majority of parents have choosen secular ethics for their children and at the same time it mentions that representatives of the Russian Church press on the parents to make them chose Orthodox culture. Is it logical? These conclusions don't match. If Russian church representatives pressed then, according to the report logics, rather significant percent of parents should have chosen foundations of Orthodoxy. Authors of this analysis ignore the fact that today some regional officials of low rank try to influence the parents and make them chose secular ethics. We know such cases and it's strange that reporters who claim to keep the dialogue with all religious organizations in the country do not know such examples or haven't reflected them in the report.

Besides, information that the Russian Church urged to stop Darwinism in schools is presented in a negative way. It's evident there was a US Democratic Party representative among the report authors as there is a wide discussion in America over covering various attitudes to world and human origin at school curriculum. It's worth mentioning that in the past the United States gave an opportunity to priests on Freedom Radio to expose scientific dogmas of the Soviet system and Darwinism in particular. And when the situation in Russian has changed and the country obtained an opportunity to give people religious education basing on their free choice, there appears such unexpected criticism in the field.

The report overemphasizes importance of some scientists and students' protests against presence of religion in Russian educational system. It points out to the student performance in St.Petersburg University in 2009 at a conference on religion and international relations, it says it was demonstration of public opinion. I participated in the conference and I can say that three-four students took part in the action and no one in the congress hall supported them and after the conference majority of students said they didn't accept such actions. It seems that the reporters don't want to see that the model when religion is present in educational system rules out pressure and secures the right of citizens to bring up their children in compliance with their world outlook.

- Major part of the report is dedicated to giving back the property...

- Unfortunately, actions of the government taken to overcome consequences of Soviet times and injustice to religious organizations, and support given to these actions by traditional religions are presented negatively. The report cites strange arguments similar to the report of the previous year that the Russian Church did not own churches and monasteries before 1917, but it doesn't mention that Orthodoxy was a state religion with all ensuing consequences. Current situation has dramatically changed, the state is secular. Thus even if before revolution religious property belonged to the state, the Church was then built in the state system, while today due to secular character of the state such objects should be transferred to religious organizations in ownership or use.

Surprising is an example of the Novodevichy Convent transferred to exclusive ownership of the Church. When examining various violations of religious rights the reporters cite international law, but when speaking about the convent they say nothing about important norms of international laws that regulate preservation of cultural objects enlisted as UNESCO world heritage when religious organizations own or use such objects. UNESCO in such cases stands up to protect rights of the believers and make religious organizations freely use such cultural sites.

At the backgrounds of critical attitude to the actions of the state taken to return expropriated property, the reporters selectively back up rights of the Russian Jewish community on returning Schneerson library and refer to international agreements. Support of some religious communities and creating negative image of other ones also arouse mistrust to the report.

There is one important remark as to the report methodology. It focuses on securing rights of religious minorities. The Russian Church believes that state and society should secure rights of all citizens and not only some of them. Minorities' rights shouldn't be secured at the expense of majority's rights. It often happens that minorities obtain permission for such activity that directly violates rights of the other part of the society.

For example, the report blames Orthodox public organizations for their criticism against actions of religious minorities. However, it doesn't mention that the latter sometimes have very critical or even aggressive position against the Russian Church, it's enough to analyze speeches of some religious leaders of the country. But such speeches are not mentioned in the report and it also makes us doubt fairness of the reporters' evaluations.

The report stresses that equality of religious organizations before the law is an important element. At the same time, it critically says that the Russian Church have more opportunities to reach the society and cooperates with the state. In this connection we should say that such situation in the country doesn't violate the principle of religious organizations equality before the law. Even the reporters say that about hundred million Russians call themselves Orthodox. Thus to secure rights of these citizens more work of the authorities is needed and the Russian Church needs to cooperate with the society to secure rights of these citizens. It is impossible to cooperate with religious minorities to the same degree as it will be out of proportions to their presence in the society and infringe rights of the citizens who adhere to the religion of majority.

The report expresses concerns over the growth of the Russian Church political influence and it is presented as violation of religious freedom. It points out to the cooperation with the United Russia party, other political parties and institutes of the country. But it makes me wonder why such interaction is evaluated negatively: in the United States political forces actively cooperate with religious organizations, politicians speak at religious meetings and it is a democratic process when the country's major political forces build a dialogue with religious organizations. According to the Constitution, Russia stands for pluralism of world outlooks and the duty of any political party is not to ignore the country's religious communities.

The Department of State believes that another example of religious freedom violation is the fact that Christmas is a state holiday and the new memorial date - Day of Russia's Baptism was introduced in the calendar and the Day of Slavic Scripture and Culture is widely celebrated. However, it only vaguely mentions that main Islamic feasts are officially celebrated in some Russian regions. Such information is not full as for example some Buddhist regions celebrate Buddhist feasts. The system adopted in Russia corresponds to democratic requirements as various groups of the society have an opportunity to celebrate main religious feasts.

Besides, such attitude to Christmas is absolutely unclear as this feast as well as some other Christian feasts is a state holiday in the States. Celebrations of such dates in Europe, America and Russia emphasize the importance given to the country's main religious tradition. At the same time, the state doesn't make people go to churches on these days, people spend their free time as they like.

-What would you wish to future State Department reports?

- I'd like to wish that in the future the report will have truly equal, friendly attitude to various religious organizations and will avoid selectiveness so that religious situation is reflected more fully and different points of view are presented - not only claims of religious minorities to the state or to the religious organizations of the majority, but the opinion of the Russian Church as well. We are ready for consultations, for the dialogue on a standing basis. Such a dialogue will help overcome all mentioned defects of the report.

- Have representatives of the USA external political department tried to set up dialogue with the Russian Church Department for External Church Relations, especially when preparing such reports?

- The USA Embassy turns to us when they want to clear out church position on some questions, but it usually happens once a year when the report is prepared and certainly it is impossible to touch upon all the problems during a one-hour talk. I think that representatives of the Department of State should hold consultations with various structures of the Russian Church depending on the questions they are interested in as well as with regional organizations of the Moscow Patriarchate. Sometimes there is an impression that such meetings are very formal, needed only for record and in fact position of the Orthodox Church is not examined and considered. Sometimes there is an impression that USA colleagues are not truly interested in our position and in reflecting it in the report.