Russia's Orthodox Church Strives to Remain above Political Fray but Critics Say the Church's Neutrality Should Be Used to Mediate Crisis

Article excerpt

THE political and economic crisis here is putting the Russian Orthodox Church in a difficult position, endangering its revival after more than 70 years of persecution by Communist authorities.

But despite the threat, church leaders so far have been restrained in their efforts to defuse the power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin and his parliamentary opponents.

"Of course the political crisis concerns us," says Alexei Bouyevsky, executive secretary of the church's External Relations Department. "But the church doesn't choose the country's political and state structure. In any situation, the church must care for the spiritual needs of the population."

Some experts say the reasons for the church's apparent reluctance to get involved in the political clash - or to offer its services as a mediator - are rooted in history. Mr. Bouyevsky, meanwhile, insisted that the church is doing all it can. But one radical cleric, Father Gleb Yakunin, a leader of the Democratic Russia movement, says the church is embroiled in a theological crisis similar to the political struggle, and thus cannot take a stand.

Many church leaders clearly view the political crisis as a threat to their hopes for a revival of a Great Russia along pre-revolutionary lines. The Orthodox Church enjoyed a prominent role in Czarist society.

Bouyevsky says the church is working to revive traditional Russian spiritual and social values, saying it will take several generations to eliminate the consequences of Soviet rule. To achieve its goal, the church needs political stability, he says.

Stability was the major theme of an appeal in late March by Patriarch Aleksi II, the church's spiritual leader. The televised appeal has been the church's only official comment on the political crisis. In the address, the patriarch staked out neutral ground, warning that civil war could engulf Russia if political "comprise" was not reached. The patriarch also said Russia needed a system that "won't permit a return to the past, to dictatorship," and called for early presidential and parliamentary elections.

In many areas, Bouyevsky says, the church's interests coincide with President Yeltsin's reform program, particularly in the areas of human rights and freedom of conscience.

But the church also is apprehensive about several Western-oriented aspects of Yeltsin's policies. These concerns are perhaps depriving Yeltsin of the church's full backing.

Domestically, the church wants market reforms to draw more on traditional Russian values, particularly in agriculture. …