Moscow turns ownership of public monasteries over to Orthodox Church
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ordered the handover of about 20 Moscow-area monasteries to the Russian Orthodox Church, returning properties seized during the Bolshevik Revolution almost a century ago.
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"There are thousands of specialists working in museums who love these places and objects and are professionally qualified to take care of them," he says. "The church should be interested in working with us. But, unfortunately, the laws do not so far provide any role for the state museums after these places have been handed over. Nor is there any clarity on the final aim of this process."Skip to next paragraph
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The church estimates that more than 70 percent of Russians are Orthodox, but critics say that statistic includes every ethnic Russian. An opinion survey conducted in March by the state-run Public Opinion Foundation found that two-thirds of respondents did indeed self-identify as "Orthodox Christian."
Violating separation of church and state?
But when asked if they observe religious rites and festivals, the vast majority answered no. For example, 80 percent said they do not attend church regularly.
"It's not at all clear that the church needs all these structures and, in any case, why is it being given all the most prominent ones, which have already been fully restored by the state museums?" asks Konstantin Mikhailov, coordinator of Arkhnadzor, an independent preservationist society. "Why don't they take some of the thousands of derelict churches around the country and restore them for use by believers?"
The church insists it will maintain public access and preserve the monuments to the level that state museums have.
"Novodevichy will be open to the public just as before," says Mr. Zvonaryov. "Of course, there are some special rules of life in a monastery, but that won't affect visitors.... The Soviets turned Novodevichy into a museum, but it can't go on that way. It has to be alive."
Some critics allege the Kremlin is violating the spirit of Russia's 1993 Constitution, which mandates separation of church and state, by restoring the Orthodox Church to its traditional czarist-era role as ideological pillar of the government. They say that the policy was authored by Putin, who turned away from democratic ways of securing public consent, and resorted to buying the backing of the church.
"The growing role of religious organizations can cause problems, but the majority of our society insists upon this," says Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin member of the State Duma's committee on religious affairs.
"Russia lacks fully developed institutions, and people don't fully trust the state, but they do believe the church can be relied on," he says. "Putin and Medvedev believe that sometimes the law has to be bent in order to solve problems. [Cooperation between Kremlin and church] is a practical necessity at this stage."
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