ENGLISH VERSION: Russian Orthodox Church Adds Influential Voice to Calls for Election Reform
The Russian Orthodox Church added its influential voice over the weekend to calls for a just election process in Russia. The step followed demonstrations across the country that called for a recount or a fresh vote, and outpourings from individual members of the church’s clergy, who reflected popular anger at the flawed Dec. 4 election.
"It is evident that the secretive nature of certain elements of the electoral system concerns people, and there must be more public control over this system," said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the most prominent spokesman for the church, in remarks to a widely followed Orthodox news Web site. "We must decide together how to do this through civilized public dialogue."
The pronouncement by Father Chaplin, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s synodal department of church and society relations, was especially significant because he is often criticized as an apologist for the Kremlin. He has made several conservative statements in the past year, including a call for an Orthodox dress code in Russia, that have stirred controversy.
In a telephone interview on Sunday night, Father Chaplin said that if the church obtained proven documentation of election violations from named sources, it would be ready to take it up with government officials.
"If there are proven facts, then of course we’re going to examine them, present them to the church hierarchy and discuss them with the Central Election Commission and other government bodies," he said.
Father Chaplin’s remarks to the Web site appeared intended to get the church back out in front of individual clergy members’ condemnations of election rigging, a first for the post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church. The comments might suggest the government is accommodating the critique of the political system, perhaps because it has become too widespread to stifle.
"It’s amazing that this awakening of civic consciousness has affected the church as well, and not just lay people but clergy, too," Sergei Chapnin, editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, said last week, on the sidelines of a seminar about Russia’s historical identity, before the new statement by Father Chaplin.
For years, Mr. Chapnin noted, many Orthodox were skeptical or indifferent toward electoral politics, though the church has regained influence since the fall of Communism and is publicly embraced by the Kremlin.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Mr. Chapnin said, "it would have been impossible to imagine" priests speaking out in such sympathy with public anger over election manipulation and fraud.
"I think society simply experienced such a shock," he added. "We understand very well that elections have been falsified before, but now public consciousness has matured to the point of expressing its opinion or speaking out against it."
He said he did not meet anyone in the church last week who approved of the official results for the Dec. 4 vote.
The Web site that Father Chaplin spoke to, Pravoslavie i mir (Orthodox Christianity and the World), has become a platform for debate about politics and morals. Its editor, Anna Danilova, said the reaction inside the church arose from disgust at official dishonesty surrounding the election. "A Christian has to protest against lies, especially lies to millions of people," she said.
Harsh condemnation of the elections among Russian Orthodox priests, theologians and active lay people was evident on Facebook pages and blogs as reports of fraud poured in last week. Concerns were raised that an honest election might have brought Communists back to power. (Their party finished a distant second, far behind the governing United Russia party, in the official results.) Orthodox believers and priests remember the persecution of the church during the Soviet era, even though many modern-day Russian Communists identify themselves as Russian Orthodox as well.
Last Tuesday, when claims of vote rigging were mounting and protests were gathering strength, one priest wrote on his Facebook page: "Falsification of the choice of the people is a grievous sin. There can be no justification for it."
By midweek, blunt statements by other prominent priests were appearing online. One priest, the Rev. Dmitri Sverdlov, posted a tragicomic narrative of his attempt to act as an election observer during which he witnessed a school director and teachers who were running a polling site commit crude violations in favor of United Russia.
In comments published Wednesday on the site of Neskuchny Sad, an Orthodox magazine that covers social issues, Archpriest Vladimir Shmaliy, a top academic official in the Moscow Patriarchate, said that the authorities must answer to the people. "Power in a contemporary state is not self-sufficient," Father Shmaliy said. "The relationship between the people who elect the authorities and the authorities presumes mutual responsibility."
Andrei Zubov, a historian who studies the church and has organized the meetings between church-minded intellectuals and other academics on Russia’s historical identity, attended the rally on Saturday in Moscow. He said clergy members were speaking out because they saw vote-rigging and fraud as violations of the Ten Commandments.
"A priest knows very well that violation of the commandments never passes without a trace," he said. "It always results in some grave consequences for violators and the entire society in which this act of falsehood occurs."
By Sophia Kishkovsky
the New York Times
December 11, 2011
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