Despatches: The night religious persecution returned to Russia

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Russian police have begun to implement the country's new law restricting freedom of movement. Last week, they stormed a Ukrainian Orthodox church near Moscow. Things are turning ugly.

It was a night the parishioners will certainly not forget. They knew Russia's draconian new religion law threatened their right to worship. But few expected its impact to be so swift and crude.

Witnesses say the police came late at night, just as when Stalin was at the height of his terror, persecuting worshippers and closing down churches across the Soviet Union.

They say scores of leather-jacketed officers, armed with semi-automatic weapons and rubber batons, burst into the cathedral and its outlying buildings and drove the occupants out into the streets.

Freezing in the autumn night air, evicted elderly nuns and young priests watched in dismay as their archbishop was led away in handcuffs. There is, it seems, little subtlety, let alone charity or forgiveness, in the way the Russian Orthodox church settles its scores these days.

The raid in Noginsk, 30 miles north-west of Moscow, came only one working day after Boris Yeltsin signed a law restricting freedom of worship in Russia, and establishing Russian Orthodoxy as the nation's dominant faith.

Half-hearted complaints from the West about the legislation have been met with soothing noises from the Kremlin, which promised it would be enforced with moderation. Less than three weeks on, those assurances already sound hollow.

Although the law was passed to protect Orthodoxy from incursions by foreign rivals, Catholics and Protestants, it is also being used as a weapon in a struggle for control over land, cathedrals and schools between the Russian church and its splinter groups. The Noginsk cathedral was run by the Ukrainian Orthodox church, which broke away from Moscow after the end of the Soviet Union; the Russians want it back.

"What happened was a total shock," said Valeri Bondarenko, a 20-year- old student priest, as he stood outside the church's padlocked gates. Beyond the fence, police in black berets and military fatigues patrolled in the shadow of the cathedral's white dome, muttering occasionally into their walkie-talkies.

"There were lots of police with weapons." he said. "Some of us had wives with babies, but they were all thrown into the streets. Some were still in night clothes and slippers. When people saw the priest was arrested, they tried to help, but the police began to beat them."

Another young priest told The Independent that he was beaten on the ground and then carted off to jail for a day.

In the eyes of the parishioners , who are mostly Russian, the raid had nothing to do with theology, but lots to do with land. For the last few years, they have been repairing their cathedral, which the Soviets turned into a factory for making felt boots. Once again, the walls are adorned with finely carved wood panels, icons and frescos. It has a seminary, a school, two canteens for the poor, and a convent. Unlike most of the surrounding industrial landscape, the cathedral complex has a cluster of new buildings. All are now under the control of the Russian Orthodox church.

Beneath the conflict lies a feud that has been simmering between the Moscow patriarchate and its counterparts in Kiev. This came to a head in 1995 when the first breakaway Ukrainian patriarch died. The Russians refused to let him be buried in Kiev's main cathedral, so the schismatics rioted and, during the disturbances, buried him beneath the pavement outside.

The ownership of the cathedral has been the subject of court battles for five years. Moscow's clerics say it was always theirs, and that last month a court finally ruled in their favour. The police say they were sent in to enforce the court's findings and met resistance from the parishioners. The Ukrainian church says the issue was unsettled, and that the raid preempted their right to appeal.

A wider issue lies at the heart of the matter. Nothing in Russia's new religion law legally justifies the eviction. But the Moscow patriarchate was clearly emboldened by the law; it appears to be using it as a tool to rebuild the empire it enjoyed under Soviet rule, when it worked closely with the Communist Party and the KGB.

"There certainly is a cause and effect relationship here, " said Lawrence Uzzell, of the Oxford-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in the ex-Soviet Union. "In Russia laws are often taking as signals rather than as a precise instruction. This law was a signal that it is the open season when it comes to religious minorities.

"If this can happen to a church with some degree of international organisation, what will happen, say, to a small isolated Baptist organisation out in the Russian hinterland?"

So far, official Western protests against the law have ranged from muted to non-existent. (Tony Blair did not raise it during his talks with Boris Yeltsin last week). But there are fears the same heavy-handed techniques will be used against other offshoots of Russian Orthodoxy, such as the Old Believers, or the Free Orthodox church.

While the world looks the other way, the Noginsk cathedral's Ukrainian archbishop and his nuns and student priests have set up a campaign headquarters in a derelict barracks for textile workers. Last week their power and water was cut off in an apparent attempt to oust them. But it remains the nerve centre of their fight to win back their church.

However, they admit it will be tough. "This religion law was worked out by the Moscow patriarchate," said the archbishop, Fr Adrian, who, though he now works from a peeling bedroom lined by iron beds, continues to wear his purple velvet hat, black robes and golden chain. "We were just the first victims. There will be many more."