THE FIRST SAINT OF THE CHECHEN WAR

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Anatoly Korolev) - In the last ten years, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonised as new martyrs about 1,500 priests and monks who died during the Bolshevik terror. It, however, refused to give the same honour to a soldier, Yevgeny Rodionov, who was executed in Chechnya eight years ago, on May 24, 1996. In so doing, the Church reaped a harvest of trouble.

Initially, Yevgeny's death was only a family tragedy.

When his mother, Lyubov Vasiliyevna, was informed that her son had deserted, she did not believe the news and went to look for him in Chechnya. Somehow she did the unbelievable and found the Chechens who had held her son prisoner and then killed him. Ruslan Khaikharov, the leader of the Chechen gang, told her 17 times, that is at 17 meetings, that she had born a bad son who refused to adopt Islam and join the separatists in their fight against Russia. For this he was beheaded. Yevgeny could have lived, but instead died on his 19th birthday.

The mother begged Khaikharov to give her at least Yevgeny's body. He replied that he was ready to sell it and named his price. Lyubov Vasiliyevna did not have enough money and so decided to sell her flat. Chechens with good connections in Moscow handled the deal. After receiving the money, Khaikharov showed her where Yevgeny's body was buried and another site where his head lay.

Lyubov Vasiliyevna recognised her son's cross on the decapitated body, as he had worn it since he was ten and never taken it off.

She brought the body and the head home and buried them at a cemetery in the village of Satino-Russkoye, near Podolsk, the Moscow region.

Yevgeny was awarded the Order of Courage post mortem.

The soldier's fate would have probably been forgotten, if a Central TV film crew had not come to the village six years later to shoot a short report on a cross being set on a restored church. Parishioners told the reporters about the heroic deed of theson and the courage of the mother, who had buried him in his homeland. They filed the story as a separate report.

And so it became known to the Orthodox community, and a year later the soldier's fate and his grave was surrounded by a cult, as is often the case in Russia, where reason frequently gives way to emotions.

The soldier's death became a feast of holiness.

Homemade icons of the new martyr Yevgeny appeared: using photographs, a painter depicted against a halo him in a blue and white striped sailor's shirt and a border guard's uniform. If pilgrims once walked to his grave, they now arrive in special buses and join a sacred procession around the cemetery. Leaflets describing his fate are published and his cross is kept in the church as a relic. Finally, writer Alexander Prokhanov, a leader of modern Slavophiles and editor-in-chief of the patriotic newspaper Zavtra, and the public church organisation of radical Christians Union of Orthodox Standard-Bearers officially asked Patriarch Alexis II to canonise Yevgeny Rodionov and declare him a new martyr.

The Synod's canonisation commission studied the issue for a year and a half and recently announced its decision: the Church did not find Yevgeny's fate to be worthy of Church reverence.

The decision caused an uproar among Christian Russians and split the clergy into two camps: those who supported the decision and those who were outraged by it.

Maksim Maksimov, secretary of the canonisation commission, explained the Synod's position in Tserkovny Vestnik (Church Bulletin), the official publication of the Russian Orthodox Church. His arguments can be summarised in three points: the only evidence that the soldier was executed for this faith is the testimony of his mother, who in her love made a god of her son; the Russian Orthodox Church has never canonised anyone killed at war; the period of new martyrs ended with the collapse of the Bolshevik regime. However, he emphasised, the deceased can be honoured without canonisation.

Opponents of the decision, including well-known priest Alexander Shargunov, say that an outbreak of people's love is enough for the truth, that Yevgeny's grave works miracles, curing the sick and reconciling enemies. They also point out that the solider did not die at war but in captivity, and that to say that the time of martyrs is over is heresy.

This is a rare case when both parties are right, because holiness is a unique material of the soul that is born in the stormy atmosphere of debate: it is enough to recall the coming of Christ or the fate of the Apostles Peter and Paul, whose holiness was subjected to most cruel tests and fostered a fervent dispute during the first centuries of Christianity. So, this is the case when debate is three times relevant.

Moreover, for over a thousand years Russia's religious spirit has existed as a unity of opposites, where the passionate split between pagans and Christians, Old Believers and Nikon advocates, orthodox believers and evangelists, paradoxically, strengthens what is most important: faith. The sharper contradictions, the broader the common moral field of religion.

Finally, the debate around the new cult reflects the revival of the Russian church, the beneficial polyphony of opinions, which was quiet during the time of terror and oppression for the sake of survival.

And the last point.

The faithful have raised enough money for the soldier's mother to buy back her flat.

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