On Aug. 27, Russia’s largest and busiest Protestant union, the 400.000-member-strong “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), lofted the unusual proposal that inter-confessional patrols guard church property.
In mid-August, radical leftists, rightists and feminists had sawed down or felled outdoor Orthodox crucifixes in Russia and Ukraine. That aroused the emphatically Orthodox “Holy Rus” organization, which proposed creating volunteer, Orthodox patrols to guard sacred Orthodox sites and church dignitaries.
That in turn brought the non-Orthodox to their feet. The aged human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of Moscow’s Helsinki Group, complained that strictly Orthodox patrols would cause very negative reactions.
“Muslim, Jewish and atheist patrols would then also need to be instigated.” Alexei Mayorov, the director of the Office for Regional Security in Moscow, added: “This is an incorrect starting point, for it would split society.”
Bishop Konstantin Bendas, number two in ROSKhVE’s hierarchy, then responded with the proposal that inter-confessional, unarmed patrols be created. “How should Orthodox guards react if someone attacks a synagogue in a neighboring street? Would they just stand by and watch?”
ROSKhVE and its head bishop, Sergey Ryakhovsky, wrap themselves in the flag and call repeatedly for Russians to struggle jointly for the common good. They are committed to bringing Russia “back to its feet.”
Its press service noted on Aug. 25 that a congregation in Penza called “Living Faith” had participated once again in a flag day ceremony three days earlier. Church members had decorated their cars with flags and slogans and joined other local firms and organizations in forming a column of honking vehicles which paraded through the city.
This holiday, created in 1994, was organised in Penza by “Young Guard,” the youth organization of the “United Russia” state party. Living Faith pastor Sergey Kireyev explained: “Protestants are patriots in our country. History reports of very many Protestants who became famous scientists and government leaders. We want to prolong that tradition. . . We regard Russia to be a strong country with a terrific future. Protestants therefore pray for their country and desire that it might bloom and grow.”
Since 2006, a Protestant delegation has been permitted to lay wreaths at the Kremlin Wall in honor of the war dead every year on May 8. ROSKhVE always appears in the front row on such occasions.
ROSKhVE and its head bishop respond quickly to national developments, the most recent being the patrols proposal. In a practice usually reserved for the Patriarch, Ryakhovsky issues statements of condolence when airplanes crash and natural catastrophes occur. The only other Protestant group which manages to stay in the race with him for the public eye are the news agency, magazine and webpage of the Evangelical-Christian bishop and construction czar Alexander Semchenko.
Semchenko, a former Baptist, also seeks the blessings of the highest government circles. In February 2012 agencies reported that he was the primary financier and builder of two new Orthodox churches on the outskirts of Moscow. This effort was interpreted as an expression of good will vis-à-vis the Moscow Patriarchate and resulted in Patriarch Kirill offering a public expression of appreciation.
The businessman explained his actions by citing the fact that his staff includes Orthodox believers.
Yet “slower” Protestant circles (Baptists and Lutherans in particular) are unwilling to sanction Ryakhovsky’s and Semchenko’s thrust into the public arena. In recent years, both bishops have pushed for a “sobor,” a conference of all evangelical confessions under their own leadership. Yet the less-nimble unions and churches refuse to participate.
Orthodox circles are also highly reluctant to view these two bishops as the vanguard of the Protestant movement. Until roughly a year ago, the Moscow Patriarchate was pushing for “traditional” Protestants ― mostly Baptists and Lutherans ― to officially distance themselves from the “untraditional” Pentecostals and Charismatics.
Yet the “traditional” proved unwilling to cooperate ― that would indeed have brought too much estrangement into the Protestant scene.
The politics of incremental change
One could claim that Bishop Ryakhovsky is aiming to cut a deal with the state: He is offering political loyalty, constancy and hard work for the common good. In return, he expects a commitment to complete religious freedom and the ending of all discrimination.
Moscow’s “Slavic Legal Center,” which is supported heavily by U.S. Charismatics, struggles mightily for the rights of Russia’s non-Orthodox. This strategy seems contradictory because even though ROSKhVE is second to none in its support of the present Russian government, churches under its umbrella have received massive support in finance and content from Western sources.
Despite many disagreements on minor details, Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists and Adventists also support the policy of gradual, incremental change. Orthodox-Pentecostal patrols are illusory, but the proposal was nevertheless a clever move, as it jumbled the usual lines of Christian-Christian confrontation.
William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.