Saints in Demand In Russia as Church Asserts Tie to State

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 20, 2007

MOSCOW -- Sergei Privalov, a soft-spoken priest who heads the Russian Orthodox Church's Department for Cooperation with the Military, Law Enforcement and the Security Services, is a busy man.

Everyone wants a patron saint.

"It's like a wave we are witnessing," he said. He pulled out a recent letter from the church's patriarch, Alexy II, approving a request from Rus, a special forces police unit long involved in controversial counterterrorism operations in Chechnya, that the legendary 13th-century military commander and saint Alexander Nevsky be named its patron.

Nevsky was already the patron saint of the FSB, Russia's internal security service. Meanwhile, the Strategic Rocket Forces, which oversee Russia's land-based nuclear missiles, have Saint Barbara, the tax police have Saint Anthony, the Border Guards have Saint Ilya Muromets and the Ministry of Interior's troops have Saint Vladimir, among dozens of other examples.

Moribund during the Soviet era, the Orthodox Church has been reborn as a powerful force in Russian life, building congregations across the country. The church has also become increasingly identified with a strand of patriotism that celebrates a strong centralized state and is skeptical of Western notions of democracy, human rights and pluralism. Its most prominent adherent is President Vladimir Putin, whose faith is part of his public persona.

The church's increasingly close relationship with the state and the adoption of Orthodox symbols by public entities have unsettled followers of some of Russia's other traditional religions, particularly its large Muslim population.

Some critics contend that Orthodoxy is becoming a state religion by sleight, through such steps as making the teaching of Orthodox culture mandatory in some regions this school year. The move violates the separation of church and state required by the Russian constitution.

"In our multinational and multi-faith state, we cannot say one religion has priority," said Nafigulla Ashirov, co-chairman of Russia's Council of Muftis. "Unfortunately, the Orthodox have a strong lobby in all powerful state structures. The Russian army is one example. Its main task is to defend the motherland and all of its citizens, but it is being turned into a narrow religious army.

"What I mean," he continued, "is that there are many units in the army who have gotten these patron saints and special prayers and icons, and they are building chapels. For Muslims, it is not comfortable to serve in a unit with a religious coloring. And that is destabilizing."

Representatives of Judaism and Buddhism, Russia's two other officially recognized faiths, have been largely silent on the issue.

As well as patron saints, agencies often adopt special Christian prayers and have dedicated chapels for their employees. The FSB, for instance, has a church in central Moscow, and its prayer to Saint Alexander Nevsky asks that he help the agency defeat "all visible and invisible enemies."

The Defense Ministry, the FSB and other agencies declined to discuss the issue and referred queries to the Orthodox Church.

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