Religion Prospers in Mother Russia Patriarch's Influence Grows as He Tries to Mediate between Factions of the Country's Fractious Politics

Article excerpt

DURING President Clinton's recent visit to Moscow, a significant event occurred that received inadequate media coverage: the president of the United States met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II. It was an act that recognized Russian spiritual revival and the significant and still growing role that the Church and Patriarch Alexy are playing in today's Russia.

In late September 1993, the Patriarch cut short his visit to the United States and flew back to Moscow. In the midst of the confrontation between President Boris Yeltsin's government and the dissolved conservative-dominated Parliament, the Patriarch started an unprecedented peacemaking mission, bringing the foes to the negotiation table.

This effort failed to prevent violence. In the aftermath of the bloody outcome in October some Russian observers criticized the Church. Zealous democrats said that the Patriarch - who had blessed Mr. Yeltsin's presidency in 1991 and supported democratic forces during the August putsch that year - should have condemned the Communists and endorsed the democrats in 1993. Meanwhile conservative nationalists, among them some Orthodox laymen, priests, and bishops, wished they had won the Church's favor. The strength and significance of the Church was precisely in its non-partisanship.

Liberal Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta publishes monthly ratings of Russia's top 100 influential public figures. After October, Patriarch Alexy rose from the 53rd to the 10th position on this list.

The Church's serious public role at a national level might be difficult to understand for Americans, whose successful democracy has been built in part on the notion of the separation of church and state and on the political and economic basis of freedom and prosperity.

In Russia the Byzantine theological ideal of simphonia, or co-sounding harmony between church and state was hardly ever achieved. The boundary between the two has shifted and often has been a source of conflict, but historically they have been virtually inseparable. The public role of the Church was especially high at times of trouble or government instability, particularly in the 14th and early 17th centuries.

Amid the catastrophe of revolution in 1917, the Church convened for its Local Council and decided to restore the institution of Patriarch, which had been abolished by Peter the Great in the early 18th century. Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow, who not long before had been a very successful Russian Orthodox Bishop of America, was elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

Now Patriarch Tikhon is a saint. He is considered the first in the long, almost endless row of New Martyrs of Russia - clergymen and laymen who were shot or who died in numerous camps and prisons not for opposing the Communist regime, but for professing their faith. In the 1920s and '30s, Christianity in Russia underwent the kind of persecution that is comparable only to that of its early beginnings. …