Beliefnet
KRASNODAR, Russia--When it comes to religious freedom in the world's largest country, this southern Russian steppe city of 1 million is one of the last places to look.

The charismatic Communist governor is the picture of intolerance. In one speech, he made 60 references to zhidy, a derogatory term for Jews. Local Protestants can't rent space to worship on Sundays and so meet in a three-room apartment using a video camera and televisions. Jehovah's Witnesses are often physically and verbally abused while preaching door-to-door, their leaders say.

Krasnodar is not, by any means, a typical Russian city. Yet in the March 26 presidential election, Krasnodar showed itself to be quite average, giving Vladimir Putin a solid 52 percent of the vote from a field of 11 candidates. Nationally, Putin won nearly 53 percent, compared with 29 percent for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The election results in Krasnodar show how Putin's nationalist politics resonate deeply among voters, who in past elections have staunchly supported Communist candidates. While it's too early to tell what Putin's policies on religious freedom will be, the current situation in Krasnodar could well resemble a worst-case scenario, said one pessimistic Russian religion expert.

"It is going to get much more difficult. There are no hopes that Putin will be more civilized than his Bolshevik predecessors," said Yakov Krotov, a Moscow church historian and author, alluding to Putin's 15-year career in the KGB. "As a former Chekhist [KGB man], Putin will be more willing to use new methods against, for example, foreign Protestants."

Under a controversial 1997 religion law designed to better control the flood of new faiths into Russia, the government has considerable latitude in regulating religious groups, especially those deemed harmful to society. This year will be a telling one, as December 31 marks the final deadline for registration under the new law.

Putin himself is a self-described believer, having been baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church as a child. In appearances with Orthodox leader Patriarch Alexy II and in remarks broadcast on Christmas Eve, Putin appeared more familiar and comfortable with his faith than other Soviet-bred politicians who have adopted Russian Orthodoxy.

Key to Putin's decisive election victory was his ability to ride the crest of Russian nationalism connected with the ongoing war against Muslim separatists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, located about 275 miles east of Krasnodar. Central to that nationalism and ethnic Russians' self-identity is the 1,000-year-old Russian Orthodox Church, the country's dominant faith and, historically, a key defense against the Roman Catholic West and the Muslim East.

These days, a post-Soviet influx of thousands of American evangelical Protestants, Scientologists, Mormons, and others--all looking to gain converts--is perceived as just as threatening to traditional Russian values. Standing in their way here are staunchly Orthodox Cossacks and the Russian Orthodox Church itself.

The sense of embattlement is especially acute in Krasnodar, which has gained an international reputation as a bastion of intolerance largely through the excesses of Cossacks accused of terrorizing ethnic minorities and through Govenor Nikolai Kondratenko's public obsession with Jews and Zionism.

Moreover, a U.S.-based human rights group is planning a large conference here this summer. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Semitic Black Hundred group is organizing a summertime recruitment drive in the area.

According to Orthodox Father Valentin Mertzev, 62, dean of 10 city parishes, the battle has been pitched for some time. In an interview in the handsome brick Cathedral Church of St. Katherine after a morning Divine Liturgy, Mertzev described the local appearance of nontraditional faiths--including Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas--as "not a healthy phenomenon. There are very many of them now, and we find this a bit offensive."

"These missionaries are impostors and cosmopolitans who are drawing people away from the motherland," said Mertzev, an engaging, portly man with a broad face topped by black eyebrows and flowing white hair. "A church prays. Those people preach. It is pure propaganda that they use."

Mertzev said his church has no intention of acting in violation of Russia's constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. But as far as he is concerned, some nontraditional faiths are not legitimate religions.

"If you are speaking about their teaching, it is worse than Communist teaching," said Mertzev, a priest since 1960. "It is entirely secular and materialistic. They wrap it up and present it as a religion, but it is not a religion."

Despite opposition from politically powerful Russian Orthodox Church leaders and hurdles erected by local government, some of the faiths to which Mertzev is opposed are growing rapidly here.

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