Moscow, October 3, 2017
Head of Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department for External Church Relations Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk has enumerated both the positives and negatives in the U.S. State Department’s recent report on the supposed infringement of religious freedoms in Russia. As previously reported, the ecclesial letter was sent to the U.S. embassy to be passed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
More details are now available on the contents of the letter, with Met. Hilarion in particular welcoming the softening of the U.S.’s stance on the issue of freedom of conscience in Russia, while pointing out the glaring absence of many important facts of the continuing sufferings of canonical believers in Ukraine under the care of the Moscow Patriarchate, reports Interfax-Religion.
“Unlike previous years,” the metropolitan writes, “the document does not posit that the Russian Orthodox Church is approaching the status of the state, and does not consider the introduction of the ‘Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture’ module in secondary schools as a threat to religious freedom. There are no unfair accusations, as before, that the Church supposedly inspires persecution of religious minorities.”
At the same time, the hierarch drew the Secretary of State’s attention to a number of the report’s claims that are, in his opinion, based on biased information.
For example, he pointed to the situation surrounding the contested erecting of a church in Moscow’ Torfyanka Park, which was presented in the report only from the point of view of those opposed to the construction, with nothing said about the position of the Russian Church.
Met. Hilarion also expressed disagreement with the document’s negative evaluation of the Church’s involvement in the system of distribution of state grants. “As you know, Church organizations are involved in this program on a general basis in the conditions of a free competition,” Vladyka writes, noting that not only the Russian Orthodox Church, but Muslims organizations and Protestant churches have also received state grants.
The report’s strong point was that it included a significant number of violations of the rights of believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. However, he notes, many facts went unnoticed, and some are presented inaccurately or on the basis of unreliable data—for example, statistics on religious demographics in Ukraine. Additionally, the document refers to the discriminatory bill no. 4511, but fails to mention other anti-Orthodox bills under consideration by the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada.
The report does note state intervention in Church life, such as when deputies of the Verkhovna Rada appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to create a united and autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, “However, it does not reflect numerous instances of public statements by prominent Ukrainian government officials of unfounded political accusations against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as well as the fact of the illegal blockage by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture of the registration procedure for dozens of communities of this Church,” Met. Hilarion notes.
The document refers to some cases of forcible seizure of Ukrainian Orthodox churches, the burning of church buildings, vandalism, attacks on believers, and the obstruction of communities from captured churches in their attempts to find a new place for worship. However, the report provides only a small portion of such facts.
“The Russian Orthodox Church, as, probably, no other major religious community in the world, well knows what is the destruction of religious rights and freedoms. We remember this year the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the persecutions of believers in our country, unprecedented in world history,” the Volokolamsk prelate writes.
Such a terrible experience “makes you labor to not allow such discrimination in the future against people who are led by religious principles in their lives,” he added. Therefore, according to him, the Russian Church defends the right of Christians, especially in those countries where they are a minority, in a free confession of their faith and a peaceful existence on the land of their ancestors.
“As our Church has repeatedly stated, we are prepared to further develop relations in the advocacy of the rights and freedoms of persecuted Christians with diplomatic representatives of the United States of America in Russia, of American societal and religious organizations,” Met. Hilarion writes in his letter.