News – Winter 2011 / IC 59

Russian Church Proposes Steps to Reduce Abortion

Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has proposed to Russian President Dimitri Medvedev a series of family policies that would restrict access to abortion, Agence France Presse reported in January. The proposals are the first time the Russian Church has suggested specific policies to the Russian government.

The patriarchate requests that the expenses of abortion no longer be covered by the health system except in the case of danger to the woman’s life. It also proposes the obligation to inform women about all the negative consequences of the interruption of pregnancy and hopes, moreover, for the introduction of an informed consent and a time of reflection. The document of the Orthodox Church also suggests the creation of a “crisis center” in all obstetric clinics that would be staffed by counselors and religious persons.

Alexander Verkhovski, of the Sova Human Rights Center, told AFP that the patriarch offered “very moderate proposals, from a religious point of view,” but affirmed that “the Orthodox Church, like the Catholic Church, is categorically opposed to abortion, but in this address to the authorities, it counts on a compromise.”

Last June, the Church launched an appeal in favor of severer norms to reduce abortions in the country, in response to worries about the decreasing size of the population. At that time Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said that “in Soviet times we were accustomed to abortion and to consider it an inevitable part of our legal reality with no way of turning back. But today we see that it is possible to turn back quite a bit.” Even young people without ties to the Church or any other religious institution, he said, wish to see a reduction in the number of abortions.

Abortion in Russia goes back a long time. In 1920, just three years after the revolution of 1917, Russia became the first country in the world to legalize the practice. Prohibited again in 1936 by Stalin (with the exception of some situations), abortion was reintroduced in 1955. Less than 10 years after this date, in 1964, the highest level of abortions was recorded in the history of Russia or the then Soviet Union: 5.6 million. The number of abortions began to drop in Russia in recent decades.

According to data of the Health Ministry, in 1990 there were 3.92 million abortions, 2.57 million in 1995, 1.96 million in 2000, and 1.78 million in 2002. Despite this decline, however, the level of abortions exceeded that of births in 2004: 1.6 million abortions as opposed to 1.5 million births.

The mortality rate is high in Russia, partly due to the decay of the health care system after the collapse of the USSR and also widespread alcoholism. Abortion is regarded as the key factor in Russia’s dramatic demographic decline, which began in the mid-1990s, that is, almost immediately after the collapse of the USSR. In less than 20 years, the Russian population decreased from almost 149 million in 1991 to less than 142 million in 2010.

The effect of this demographic collapse is already visible in the educational system. Since 1999, the number of school children has fallen every year by close to one million. In the 2004-2005 school year, 5,604 schools reported having only ten pupils.

Without a dramatic change of course, Russia may have only 116 million inhabitants in 2050.

Patriarch Kirill’s Response to Airport Bombing

January 25, the day after the bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, described the attack as “the horrifying scowl of sin and a barbaric distortion of human nature,” adding that acts once condemned even in war “are today becoming a form of protest.”

He was speaking after a service at a church overflowing with Moscow State University students and officials who gathered to celebrate St. Tatyana’s Day, both a religious and student holiday. This year, it became an occasion to address growing ethnic tensions and remember the victims of a suicide bomber who killed at least 35 people and injured 150.

The service took place at St. Tatyana’s Church, just steps from the Kremlin and Manezh Square, where Russian nationalist football fans rioted in December and attacked dark-skinned passers-by from the Caucasus.

“Just recently, frightening events occurred here on Manezh Square, right next to the university church, and suddenly the entire society has shuddered and begun to speak of problems,” said Kirill.

Ethnic tensions had been growing in Moscow for months before that, including anger over plans to build a new mosque in a southeastern district of the city. Muslim migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia have emigrated to the Russian capital, fleeing wars in their home regions since the collapse of the Soviet Union and searching for economic opportunity.

The same day as the service led by Kirill, Ravil Gainutdin, head of Russia’s Council of Muftis, made a statement quoting the Koran: “the fire of hell” awaits those who carry out such murderous acts. [Sophia Kishkovsky-ENI]

Russia to Return More Church Property

By a vote of 345 votes to 42, in November Russia’s parliament passed a law to restore property seized by the state in Soviet times to the religious organizations to which it originally belonged.

Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church welcomed the Duma’s passage of the legislation as “a giant step toward justice.” Under the law, the federal, regional and municipal authorities have two years to hand over property once a claim has been made. Previously, restoration of church property, which began in 1988 in the last days of the USSR, was regulated only at the federal level and in a haphazard manner.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had earlier promised Patriarch Kirill “to return to religious organizations that which by rights belongs to them.” [ENI]

Bartholomew to Continue Dialogue with Pope and Islam

On December 20, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew delivered a major address in Istanbul in which he defended his commitment to engage in inter-faith dialogue.

“We will insist on dialogue, despite the criticism that we suffer,” he said. “There is, unfortunately, a certain religious fundamentalism, a tragic phenomenon, which can be found among Orthodox and Catholics, among Muslims and Jews. These are people who think they alone have the right to exist on earth, almost as if they alone have the right to rule on this our planet according to the Old Testament. And they say there is no room for anyone else, and are therefore opposed to any dialogue.

“We are subject to criticism and attack because we maintain relations with the Pope (we are strong supporters of the ecumenical dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics), with Islam and the Jewish world. But we will continue to move forward on our journey, according to the path laid by our predecessors, well aware of our actions, regardless of the criticisms of which we are object.

“These fringes, characterized by extreme positions, are everywhere. It is therefore natural that we suffer their criticisms, according to their ideological dictates, all of us who try to widen our horizons and have a theological view of things, because we want the peaceful coexistence of all, based on the principles of charity and friendship.”

Christian Exodus Continues in Iraq

The last Christian man in the Iraqi town of Habbaniya Cece goes to church each morning to clean the building and to remember the past. When he was born 48 years ago, most of the population was Christian. Now his 11-year-old son knows no other Christians and has no memory of attending a church service. “When my son takes an oath, it is on the Koran, not the Bible,” Hawal lamented.

His wife wants to leave town or leave the country, joining what is becoming an exodus of Christians from Iraq and throughout the Middle East, but Hawal still feels an obligation to stay, and also encouragement from neighbors. “What gives me courage,” he said, “is that my Muslim brothers say, ‘Don’t leave.’”

Residents talk about the town as an oasis of ethnic and religious harmony, where Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites all lived together for decades without friction. On one short stretch of road near Mr. Hawal’s church, Mary Queen of Peace, are an Assyrian church, two Sunni mosques and a Shiite mosque.

“This is the best place you will find in Iraq, because we have Christians and Muslims together,” said the mayor, Sabah Fawzi, a Muslim, who stopped by the church to look in on Mr. Hawal. “When my wife and daughters want something, sometimes they come to the church to ask God for it.”

But the local buildings tell a more complicated story. The Assyrian church, St. George the Martyr, lies empty and hollowed out after an explosion in 2005. The Shiite mosque, Husseiniya Habbaniya, is a brand- new building but has no imam, or cleric, because of attacks against Shiites in the region, including a 2006 bombing that damaged the previous building.

Such attacks shattered the mutual interdependence that had flourished for much of the past century. As Anbar Province in Iraq became a stronghold for Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups, Christians and Shiites fled the area, until this town of 10,150 now has only one Christian family, down from about 70 families before the American-led invasion of 2003. There were not enough Shiites to fill the big new mosque.

At Mary Queen of Peace, Hawal is caretaker not only of a church but of local Christian history. For most of the last century Habbaniya was a hub for Assyrian Christians from around Iraq, with an educated elite and a unique dialect.

Hawal, though Assyrian, switched to Mary Queen of Peace (Catholic) after his brother became the caretaker and remained after his brother moved to Baghdad and then to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

“Whenever I look at my son, my heart breaks,” Hawal said. “I just want him to live a normal life where he can practice the Christian traditions.” If another Christian family would take care of the church, he said, he would leave town.

About half of Iraq’s Christians have left the country since the invasion. [John Leland and Duraid Adnan, New York Times]

Muslims Guard Cairo Church After New Year’s Eve Attack

Following an attack that killed 21 Christians attending a New Year’s service at All Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, prominent Egyptian Muslims organized as a “human shield” January 6 – Christmas on the Old Calendar –  to prevent a similar tragedy.

“We either live together, or we die together,” said Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim philanthropist who proposed the “human shield” idea. Among those participating in the shield were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who said that they consider the attack on a Christian church was an attack on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who took part in the action at the Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I’m standing with the Copts because the only way that things will change in this country is if we come together.”

‘Protect Religious Minorities’ Says Muslim at Talks in Geneva

The coordinator of a Muslim initiative to promote common ground with Christians said in November that leaders of the two religions have a duty to protect adherents of the other faith against followers of their own.

“For both our religions, harming religious minorities among us is evil, is absolutely forbidden and is ultimately a rejection of God’s love and a crime against God himself,” Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad Bin Talal of Jordan said on the opening day of a meeting in November of Muslim and Christian leaders and scholars held at the Ecumenical Center in Geneva.

Ghazi urged leaders of the two faiths, “defend the other against followers of our own religion when the other is weak and oppressed, especially in a social minority context.”

Prince Ghazi is the coordinator of the “Common Word” initiative launched in 2007 by 138 Muslim scholars seeking common ground between Christian and Islamic religious traditions.

Minefields Surround Place of Christ’s Baptism

The place on the Israeli side of the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized will soon be opened again as a place of pilgrimage, but there is the danger posed by thousands of land mines that remain in place on either side of the site, presenting a danger to incautious or over-zealous pilgrims who stray from the marked paths.

Israel’s military maintains that the sites are safe and that removal of the land mines is not needed, while advocacy groups insist they present a potential danger, especially given local flooding. Dhyan Or, director of Roots of Peace, has warned that, at times of flooding, mines could drift from the marked areas.

On Epiphany, nearly 15,000 Christians traveled between the land mines, which are fenced-in, in order to attend the blessing of the waters. In neighboring Jordan, about 8,000 mines have been cleared.

Tolstoy’s Excommunication Still Controversial

In November, Sergei Stepashin, Russia’s former prime minister and now president of the Russian Book Union, proposed to Patriarch Kirill that the Russian Orthodox Church lift its declaration of excommunication of Leo Tolstoy issued 110 years ago.

Tolstoy was controversial among Russians while he was alive and remains so. Many are scandalized that the Russian Orthodox Church “blacklisted” a national hero. Others regard Tolstoy, with his many tirades against the Russian Orthodox Church, as having helped set the stage for the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Lenin described him as “the mirror of the Russian Revolution.”

Stepashin acknowledged “the particular sensitivity” of his suggestion. Reversing the excommunication, he wrote, would be an act of compassion not only toward Tolstoy but “towards doubting persons today.”

The Church’s response to Stepashin, written by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, secretary of the Patriarchal Cultural Council, acknowledged Tolstoy’s “unforgettable, beautiful works” but said the excommunication could not be lifted.

He described Tolstoy as the most “tragic personality” who “purposely used his great talent to destroy Russia’s traditional spiritual and social order.”

“The pain and perplexity of many people who respect his works are understandable; these include Orthodox Christians, for whom the reason for the decision on February 20, 1901 by the Synod to excommunicate him is may still be unclear.”

The Synod, he continued, “simply cited by its decision a fact that had already taken place – Count Leo Tolstoy excommunicated himself from the Church and completely broke off ties with it. This is something that he not only did not deny, but even resolutely emphasized at every convenient opportunity: ‘It is perfectly justifiable that I have renounced the Church that calls itself Orthodox.... I renounce all the sacraments.... I have truly renounced the Church, I have stopped fulfilling its rites, and I have written in my will to my close ones that they should not allow any clergymen from the Church near me when I will be dying.’ These are just a few of the great writer’s numerous proclamations in this regard.”

Tikhon recalled how Tolstoy, when he was 27, had the idea of creating a new faith. “In his old age, when he felt that his aim was nearly accomplished, the writer created a small sect of his fans and wrote ‘The Gospel according to Tolstoy.’ The main object of Tolstoy’s attacks was the Orthodox Church. His words and actions directed against the Church were horrifying to the Orthodox consciousness. Furthermore, [his] activities during the final ten years of his life were, unfortunately, truly destructive for Russia, which he loved. They brought misfortune to the people whom he so badly wanted to serve. It is no accident that the leader of the Bolsheviks valued the aim of Leo Tolstoy's activity so highly and called the writer “the mirror of the Russian revolution.”

Tikhon also recalled the sad finale to Tolstoy’s life, when he fled from his home, “not to his like-minded friends, the ‘Tolstoyans,’ but to the most famous Russian monastery, Optina Hermitage, where ascetic elders were living. He wanted to meet with them, but at the last minute he lost his resolve, about which he regretfully told his sister, a nun of Shamordino Convent near Optina. When at Astapovo Station he felt his approaching death, he asked that a telegram be sent to Optina Hermitage with the request that they send him Staretz Joseph. However, when two priests arrived in Astapovo, the writer's followers would not allow them to meet.

“The Church related to the writer's spiritual fate with enormous compassion. There were no anathemas or curses pronounced either before or after his death, as some unconscionable historians and polemicists have insisted... Orthodox people still respect Leo Tolstoy's literary talent, but still do not accept his anti-Christian ideas.

“Several generations of Orthodox readers in our country and abroad highly appreciate Leo Tolstoy's literary creations.... Nevertheless, because the writer himself never made peace with the Church (Leo Tolstoy never publicly renounced his tragic spiritual error), the excommunication by which he separated himself from the Church cannot be removed.”

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59