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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2004

Reunited church could be test for Putin

"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."

Orthodox Russians came a step closer to life last month, according to the above line from an Old Testament psalm. That's when believers in Russia and abroad started to put to rest the split begun soon after the Bolsheviks took over the country in 1917.

The Russian Orthodox church celebrated the first visit to Moscow by a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia last month. Metropolitan Laurus of Eastern America and New York, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and Archbishop Mark of Berlin, Germany, and Great Britain, met with Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and all Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met them at his private residence near Moscow, paying tribute to the historical event. Earlier this month, Mr. Putin presented His Holiness Alexy II with one of Russia's highest state awards, the Order of Service to Fatherland of the First Degree.

Despite all Mr. Putin's words about separation of church and state, there is a suspicion that Mr. Putin intends to turn the event to the benefit of the Kremlin, already exaggerating his own role in the events that precipitated the visit. The Kremlin appears in need of new ideologues to prop up its increasingly autocratic rule of Russia, a role traditionally held by the Russian Orthodox church under the czars.

"I derive great satisfaction from noting that after our meeting in New York, those clergyman who promote, defend, and proselytize Orthodoxy outside of the borders of Russia visited the Russian Federation and saw with their own eyes the spiritual rebirth of our Fatherland," Mr. Putin said during his meeting with the prelates.

Pro-Kremlin newspapers rushed to exalt the president, blowing his involvement out of proportion.

Take for example the Komsomolskaya Pravda, a large-circulation daily geared to young readers.

It begins its commentary with a correct statement that the Russian Orthodox church split up when clerics who emigrated from Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik coup rightly condemned the Orthodox leadership who stayed behind for collaboration with the Lenin regime.

"The row [between the two churches] continued until President Putin met with His Eminence Metropolitan Laurus, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and delivered to him an invitation from Patriarch Alexy II to visit Russia," the newspaper writes next without any elaboration.

What Russian papers usually omit in their commentaries is that the visit became possible after the patriarch issued an apology to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia last December in Moscow for splitting up the church.

The apology is truly great news.

Mr. Putin is overestimating the propagandistic power of the Kremlin. It is the 21st century and people have other sources of information besides Kremlin-supported media.

If done cautiously with proper representation of Russian Orthodox believers outside Russia, the prospective unification will make it much harder for Russian leaders to use Russian Orthodox faith as an ideological prop in chauvinistic and authoritarian policies - if only because people in the West are more cosmopolitan than people in Russia.

Reunification of the church should make it harder for Mr. Putin to "divide and conquer" by labeling his critics as traitors on foreign payrolls, as he did in a televised state of the nation address last month.



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