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Is Russia's Orthodox Church privileged or persecuted?

The Russian Orthodox Church's ties with the government are facing push back. Church leaders have decried recent incidents, including a punk band's protest inside a church.

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Mr. Chaplin argues that Western attitudes, which take a lenient view of "blasphemous" artistic expressions, are wrong and not suitable for Russia. "We survived mass desecrations in Soviet times, and it's clear that [the atheism] of Soviet leaders contributed to the collapse of the USSR," he says. "The West is wrong to allow actions that cast down public morality. . .  Rules protecting sacred objects and places must be strict. Such crimes are extremely dangerous because they can lead to a breakdown in public order."

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Since the punk rock incident, according to Kirill, there has been a string of "hooligan attacks" on priests and churches, including one case in the northern Russian town of Veliky Ustug, where a man allegedly chopped up 30 icons with an axe, and another in the southern town of Nevinnomyssk, where a priest was assaulted and an altar desecrated.

Critics allege that religious leaders are really upset about growing public criticism of the church and recent scrutiny of the lavish lifestyles of top church officials, including Kirill.

Though the Russian government has quietly handed back to the church vast amounts of land, property, and artifacts formerly held by state museums, the Russian media recently gave unexpectedly critical coverage to a decision that would give half of a functioning Moscow-area children's hospital to the church for inclusion in a monastery.

The press also ran embarrassing stories this winter about Patriarch Kirill's court battle with former health minister Yury Shevchenko over an allegedly botched renovation of Kirill's sumptuous downtown Moscow apartment, which resulted in Mr. Shevchenko having to pay the Patriarch nearly $700,000 in damages. For most Russians, who still inhabit cramped little Soviet-era flats, the revelations about the scale and sheer luxury of Kirill's private accommodations were eye-popping.

"These revelations in the media are viewed by believers as part of an orchestrated campaign against the church," says Mr. Michaelson. "For many Russians, the church is much more than just a political institution, and they feel very insulted by this [media attention]."

Perhaps most painful – because it was largely self-inflicted – was a blogger's allegation that Kirill owned a $40,000 Breguet watch, a claim that the Patriarch initially denied. Then bloggers found a photo of Kirill wearing the watch on an official church website. The timepiece was subsequently airbrushed out of the photo by a church technician. It was a sloppy job –  while Kirill's wrist appeared clean, a clear reflection of the watch remained in the polished oak table and the retouched picture went viral.

"All this activity, with the church trying to mobilize its parishioners to support it, is not about the [punk rock] case, but something much larger," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"The Russian Orthodox Church is terrified that there will be a real process of secularization here, such as has happened in Europe. It's not impressed with the results the Catholic Church has obtained in Europe, by compromising with civil society and embracing more tolerance. The Russian Church wants to preserve its historic identity, side by side with the Russian state, in which it supports the state and the state supports it. It doesn't want to embrace any change, or accept any new trends. Increasingly, it sees the modern, or liberal part of society as its adversary," Mr. Makarkin says.

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