Russia's Orthodox Church Strives To Remain Above Political Fray

But critics say the church's neutrality should be used to mediate crisis

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 election s.

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. Under the Czars, the Russian agricultural structure was communal, differing from the Western stress on individuality, Bouyevsky says.

In foreign policy, the church also has opposed Russian support for United Nations sanctions against Serbia, an Orthodox Christian nation that historically was a Russian protectorate.

At the same time, Bouyevsky says, there is little support for the parliament because it is perceived as communist-dominated, posing a direct threat to the church.

Reluctant to back either political faction, the church also cannot do much to bring them together, Bouyevsky says. For one, he says, the church currently lacks the broad public confidence needed to mediate.

"We have a different situation in our country than in Poland," Bouyevsky explained, referring to the Roman Catholic Church's dominant social position in the neighboring Slavic nation.

While the Catholic church continued to operate under a half-century of Polish Communist rule, the Russian church was persecuted in the Soviet Union, Bouyevsky says. In addition, Poland is overwhelmingly Catholic, while Russia has not only Orthodox believers, but also large Muslim and Jewish communities.

Historian Yaroslav Shchapov says the Orthodox Church's reluctance to act is not totally due to Communist repression. Before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the church was closely aligned with the Czar. Under current political conditions, religious leaders lack guidance, he says.

"When Russia had an absolute monarchy, the church hierarchy always supported the state authority," Mr. Shchapov says. "Right now, the church simply doesn't have a precedent, doesn't have any experience in participating in this kind of struggle."

The church is also hampered by widespread suspicion that it collaborated with the KGB security police during the Soviet era, Shchapov says. Bouyevsky vehemently denies any alleged church collaboration.

In addition, Father Yakunin, an outspoken critic of the church hierarchy, says the church is mired in a bitter theological struggle. A schism is possible, he says, as an ultraconservative faction struggles against more moderate leaders for control.

"There is a fundamentalist [Orthodox] force - fanatics - and they are gaining strength and forcing the patriarch to move to the right," Yakunin says. The conservative faction is intolerant of foreign beliefs, he adds.

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