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

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

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

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

"Apparently, on some level, it got somebody's attention," Oshtrakh said Thursday, adding, however, that he is skeptical the investigation will lead to a court case or punishment for the church. "We are not certain the prosecutor will take this to the end."

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

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

He denied that the Yekaterinburg diocese discriminates against any particular ethnic group, "including the Jews, especially since our Lord God came from the Jews."

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

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

Yekaterinburg is not the only Russian city where Nilus has a following. In the country's second largest city, St. Petersburg, the first-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 confirms Orthodox ideals," according to a press release by the Orthodox St. Petersburg Society.

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