The head of Russia’s largest religious faith said on Thursday that while the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin shared a “common agenda,” their constitutional separation was not under threat.
“The state, the authorities and the church are autonomous from one another,” Patriarch Kirill told journalists in Poland. “The Russian Orthodox Church values immensely its current freedom and autonomy.”
But the patriarch’s comments at the start of his four-day visit to Poland are unlikely to dampen a debate in Russia about what critics say are the deepening ties between the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.
Senior Orthodox Church official Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin told RIA Novosti last month that Orthodox believers saw nothing wrong in the “close cooperation” of the Church with the authorities. He also told journalists in June that the “Western idea that the state and the church should be slight rivals and slight enemies is both bizarre and incorrect from an Orthodox point of view.”
But Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev denied that the Orthodox Church influences Kremlin policy when he made an unexpected appearance on a popular television talk show this summer.
"Yes, the church occupies a fitting place in the life of our society and government," Medvedev said. "But no one knows better than me that it is separate from decision-making.” Medvedev served as president from 2008 until May of this year.
Patriarch Kirill’s August 16-19 visit to Poland coincides with the verdict in the controversial trial of three members of the all-female group Pussy Riot. Prosecutors have asked for three years each for three suspects charged with hooliganism aimed at “inciting religious hatred” during a February protest in Moscow’s largest cathedral.
Lawyers for the group say their clients were protesting open Church support for Vladimir Putin ahead of the March 4 presidential polls that returned the former KGB officer to the Kremlin. Patriarch Kirill called Putin’s first two presidential terms a “miracle from God” in a televised meeting less than a month before the elections.
The 65-year-old patriarch also said the Orthodox Church was discussing ways to cooperate with the Kremlin in the moral education of the nation.
“The issue of morals is one that no normal state can be indifferent toward,” he said. “A moral person is a law-abiding person – even if he does not know the law.”
He added that the issue was on “the agenda of church-state relations.”
But the Orthodox Church has come under unprecedented criticism in recent months over the perceived luxurious lifestyle of its leading figures.
Patriarch Kirill came under fire in April after he insisted in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn a $30,000 Breguet watch that he received as a gift. He suggested that any photographs of him wearing the watch must have been doctored.
However, attentive bloggers quickly discovered a photograph on the church’s official website of Patriarch Kirill with the expensive watch on his wrist. Less than 24 hours later, the timepiece had been airbrushed out of the photograph. Unfortunately for the church, the inattentive editor left intact the telltale reflection of the luxury wristwatch on a varnished table, sparking weeks of online mockery.
And there was more unwanted publicity for the Orthodox Church this week when the abbot of a downtown Moscow church was accused of being drunk behind the wheel after the Maltese diplomatic vehicle he was driving ploughed into another vehicle. Witnesses said Hegumen Timofei’s eyes were “glazed and crazy” after the crash, but the abbot refused to take a breathalyzer test, the online Gazeta.ru newspaper reported on Monday.
Patriarch Kirill also hit out at Russia’s “liberal media” over the failure of plans to introduce nationwide religious education lessons. He said the Church had been forced to “compromise” after a media outcry and allow schools to offer a choice between religious instruction and secular ethics.
The patriarch also said that Russia was a “religious society,” citing as evidence the some half a million people who queued day and night late last year at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to see a reliquary believed to hold the Virgin Mary's belt.
Although some 70 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, analysts say that many view the Church as a mere extension of the state. A report by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center pollster indicated this week that 30 percent of those who identified themselves as Orthodox Christians did not, in fact, believe in God. The same report found that only around 10 percent of believers take part in Church life.