MOSCOW (RNS) In an unprecedented step, a prosecutor in provincialRussia is investigating the Russian Orthodox Church for allegedlyinciting ethnic hatred by selling anti-Semitic publications, a charge achurch spokesman denied Friday (Jan. 11).

The investigation in Yekaterinburg, an industrial city of 1.4million on the edge of the Ural Mountains, is being hailed by Jewishadvocates as a long overdue step in using Russia's anti-hate lawsagainst anti-Semites, even when they are part of the politicallypowerful Russian Orthodox Church.

Mikhail Oshtrakh, the president of Yekaterinburg's secular Jewishcommunity, has long criticized the city's Russian Orthodox churches forselling books containing excerpts of the "Protocols of the Elders ofZion," a 100-year-old forgery purporting to prove a Jewish conspiracyfor world domination. The "Protocols" helped provide a rationale for theNazi holocaust and Russian pogroms.

Joined last year by the leaders of 11 other Yekaterinburg ethnicminorities, Oshtrakh launched a letter-writing campaign to politicalleaders in Moscow calling for an investigation. Pressure from Moscow, hesaid, eventually forced local law enforcement to do something.

"Apparently, on some level, it got somebody's attention," Oshtrakhsaid Thursday, adding, however, that he is skeptical the investigationwill lead to a court case or punishment for the church. "We are notcertain the prosecutor will take this to the end."

A spokesman for the Yekaterinburg diocese of the Russian OrthodoxChurch, Hieromonk Dmitry, acknowledged that the anti-Semitic book, "Heis at the Door" (referring to Satan), was on sale in church bookstoresas part of a seven-volume collection of the works of Sergei Nilus, aRussian Orthodox writer who died in 1929.

"If we are talking about freedom (of speech) then everyone shouldhave the chance to get acquainted with these works, shouldn't they?,"Dmitry said Friday. "There are different opinions about this book, bothgood and bad."

He denied that the Yekaterinburg diocese discriminates against anyparticular ethnic group, "including the Jews, especially since our LordGod came from the Jews."

Oshtrakh, who is affiliated with the Washington-based Union ofCouncils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, said the Nilus works onsale in Yekaterinburg are undeniably anti-Semitic.

"He wrote in that book that Jews are the followers of theantichrist, that they worship the devil since they don't accept Jesus asGod," Oshtrakh said. "Then, (Nilus) goes on with his whole theory thatJews want to take over the world. As proof, he quotes the `Protocols.'"

Yekaterinburg is not the only Russian city where Nilus has afollowing. In the country's second largest city, St. Petersburg, thefirst-ever Sergei Nilus Prize is set to be awarded Jan. 13 to a writer"who in writing about the spiritual life of the Russian people confirmsOrthodox ideals," according to a press release by the Orthodox St.Petersburg Society.