Forty-eight churches have been built, 29 are under construction and 14 more are already in the pipeline: the program for the construction of 200 new churches in Moscow continues. Due to his concern that “our Capital is last among all the regions of Russia in the relationship between churches and the Orthodox population”, Orthodox Patriarch Kirill launched a major initiative in 2011 providing for the construction not only of temples but of “parish complexes”, because – this is the reason given – the Church’s social commitment is undergoing intense development and therefore requires new areas and structures. A Foundation, part of the Patriarchate’s economic affairs department and which aims to collect “the funds received in the form of voluntary contributions and donations and direct them to finance the construction of the churches”, has been set up to support the construction of the temples in the city of Moscow. A website has been launched (200hramov.ru) providing reports on an almost daily basis, but only regarding the progress of construction works. We asked a few questions to Roman Lunkin, Head of the Religion and Society Centre at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
The political and symbolic role of the Orthodox Church in Russian society is very important, but the effective social influence of the Church is limited, and as a civil institution the Church is rather weak: the real number of parishioners does not reflect the declarations on the greatness of the Orthodox Church. At the same time, the leadership of the Patriarchate of Moscow believes that all Russian believers are potentially Orthodox. That is why the construction of churches is so important. In any case, people will go to church for the major holidays once the buildings are completed.
Are the faithful willing to contribute to the construction of temples?
As always it is the priests and bishops who try to find sponsors, and with the administrative support of the authorities in Moscow the Church has a greater chance of finding wealthy people. Ordinary worshippers do not possess the financial means.
In some instances there have been protests by residents who have seen public green areas confiscated for the construction of a new church: what do people really think about the project?
Russians are very pragmatic and when they declare themselves Orthodox believers, they do not want to give away parks or gardens or other public grounds for the construction of Church buildings. But the liberal opposition sometimes uses these conflicts between the Church and a part of society to demonstrate against the Moscow Patriarchate. In fact, citizens are not opposed to the Church.
So is there secularization in Russia or not?
Russian media speaks of secularization in paradoxical ways: for the so-called “patriots”, secularization is only taking place in the West – in the EU but not in Russia; for the liberals, Russian society is secular, and in their opinion support for the Russian Orthodox Church rests only on State power: the Church could not stand up on its own. Truth is, they are both mistaken. Russia has the same level of secularization as many countries in Western Europe.
And the ties between Church and State are not being questioned?
State-Church relations have become the main topic in public discourse since 2012, when in view of demonstrations in favour of transparent elections, the leadership of the Church supported State authorities rather than the opposition. Now the image of the Church has become more lively and more open to society, but it is true that society is critical of the relationship between Church and State, and criticisms are on the rise.
Do people feel the Church is close to their concerns?
The Russian Church only achieved some success in the social sphere after 2010. From the 1990’s until then, the pioneers of social service and charity in Russia had been the Evangelical Churches. The natural development of Orthodox Christian communities has established parishes very close to the needs of ordinary people. Now there are open and socially active communities in every diocese.
There is also another idea at work, the project of an “Orthodox Vatican”…
Yes, that is the name of the project of historical reconstruction of Sergiev Posad, heart of Orthodox monastic life and Orthodox sanctuary, the monastery of the Trinity. The project brings together elements of Orthodoxy, tourist infrastructure, and the historical reconstruction of Soviet buildings in the centre of Sergiev Posad. It is a very worthy goal, yet society and the media see primarily the ties of the Church with the State, the wealth of the Church and its relations with oligarchs and officials. But the local ecclesial communities in the regions have become a source of democracy and social action, they are changing the image of the Orthodox Church.
So how do relations with other churches work in all this?
Ecumenism is not very popular in Russia, it is rather part of the foreign policy of the Church. The dialogue between Orthodox priests and Evangelical pastors, who are the second most numerous Christian confession in Russia, is developing in the social sphere, at grass-roots level, in the regions of the country. Relations with Catholics do not fully reflect the dialogue that exists at high levels and the situation, especially in the peripheral regions, is changing very slowly. In addition, the Catholic communities have not yet gained back possession of the buildings which were confiscated during Communism, and the authorities are not returning them; the conservative Orthodox continue to accuse Catholics of proselytism.