First Among Equals?
by Bert Gedin

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The Eastern/Russian Orthodox Church reaches back to Byzantine times, and, arguably, to the beginnings of Christianity. It has long been deep-rooted, within the Russian Empire, probably as the majority religion. From great arts, to simple peasant communities, Orthodox religion flourished. Then social discontent, having festered for centuries, erupted into violent revolution. Revolutionaries often considered that the overthrown system had harboured a reactionary official Church, at one with despotic rulers. Examples of this view abound, e.g. in Eisenstein's brilliant propagandistic films.Bolschevism/Communism is an atheistic/materialistic outlook, religion is seen as 'opium of the people'. Following the 1917 events, numerous Churches, monasteries and religious works of art were destroyed. Thousands of priests, nuns, monks etc. were persecuted, often killed or despatched to the Gulag. Religion had been obliterated - or so it was assumed. Yet, after some 70 years of Communist indoctrination, following glasnost, it soon re-emerged. Its rediscovery was for many an answer to a spiritual vacuum. One imaginative, bold, attempt at 'outreach' was to build 'floating Churches', to travel the Volga/Don, stopping for a week or two at some impoverished village en route, there to rekindle long hidden religious faith. The Vatican provided financial help, purportedly in order to strengthen bonds between Eastern & Western Churches - although the Moscow Patriarchate interpreted this as proselytising. The vision of 'floating Churches' became a somewhat "muddied water". Minority religions, in recent years, e.g. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Salvation Army etc. have all been discouraged, even repressed. The time is not ripe for Pope John Paul to visit, or so it appears. One article states that "religious liberty in Russia is a patchwork affair, honoured in some regions and hindered in others." If that applies to Christian groups, those of other faiths have, equally, had a hard time. Dialogue and collaboration with the Orthodox Church is very limited indeed. However idyllic the "floating Churches" vision, Russian authorities appear not to have truly embraced religious diversity. We may require ample patience, until multi-faith ships are welcomed upon the legendary rivers and canals of 21st Century Russia.

Bert Gedin (from Sunday Times Magazine article & internet information)

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