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Riot in a Church

The Orthodox Church Mulls Over Its “Pussy Riot” Problem Billboard stylized as icon in support of Pussy Riot punk group By Andrew Roth Russia Profile 03/21/2012

For Russia’s Orthodox Christian community, the “Pussy Riot” debacle has transformed into a polarizing debate over the church’s place in Russian society. Few in the church supported the actual protest, where the group broke into Christ the Savior Cathedral, an iconic Moscow church, and performed a “punk prayer” singing “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin… chase Putin out.” But with a possible seven year prison term for hooliganism looming over the trio of arrested group members and calls for extremism charges to be brought against them as well, conservatives and liberals are battling over what influence the church should, or can, exert on the group’s future.

“There have been scandals and wide societal discussion about the church in the past, but nothing like this, linking the church and a very public investigation and courtroom proceeding,” said Xenia Luchenko, the deputy editor of PravMir, a popular Web portal on Orthodox Christian life.

Officially, the сhurch does not have an official position on the case, but some high-ranking clergy, like Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, have on at least one occasion called for the 20-something rockers to be prosecuted on extremism charges. “I am convinced that the text [of “Pussy Riot’s” song] and the [Internet] clip are extremist materials, and their distribution is an extremist act,” Chaplin told journalists this week, adding that the performance promoted “the incitement of hatred against Orthodox Christians.”

The debate, together with some of the more radical calls for harsh punishment against “Pussy Riot,” has been voiced inside the church too. In at least seven churches in the Moscow Region this weekend, a letter calling for “Pussy Riot” to be investigated for extremism was distributed to the local priests. In some cases, the letter was read following morning services, while in others it was put on display, with space for supporters to sign their names. Some suspected that the petition was distributed through the church hierarchy, but Vladimir Legoida, the Chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church's Information Department, denied the existence of the signature drive.

Many were disturbed by the letters: Archdeacon Alexander Ageikin stated that a similar letter came to the Christ the Savior Cathedral where he works, but was not read after the sermon. He said that the letters represent the most radically conservative opinions on the case. “Of course there must be punishment against a sinner before God, he should not be left free,” said Ageikin. “But to charge these women in the same manner as murderers and rapists is clearly wrong.”

While Ageikin maintained that the church could not interfere with an ongoing investigation, he said that the girls’ continued refusal to “recognize their guilt” made it less likely for the church to exert any influence on the case or their care. “If people admit their guilt, like believers, for offending the church and God, and ask for forgiveness, then we as people should recognize that and we could ask for [“Pussy Riot”] to be released into our care,” he said.

Others in the church have taken to online blogs and Facebook to call for the other “radical” position – to let the girls off scot-free. “I believe that the security services are influenced by the fact that the feelings of members of the сhurch were offended [by the demonstration]. I surely do not want handcuffs put on anyone in my name,” said outspoken Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev in an interview with Snob magazine. Kurayev then went on to comment on “Pussy Riot’s” accusations that the church was tied too closely to the government: “Surely many in the Orthodox community want to cling to the shoulder of the government. Here’s what bothers me about that: if they have the political opportunity to go further than both societal and internal church restrictions [against church influence on the state], will they be able to stop?”

“There are these two radical positions, and then a mass of people caught in the middle,” said Luchenko. “It has become clear from this case that in both public discussion and de facto the Orthodox community is not homogenous.” 

The case has also become a cause célèbre for Russia’s opposition members, who have irritated many in the сhurch by harnessing Orthodox rhetoric in their arguments. “Isn’t there a saying that one should not cast the first stone?” Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialite turned political talk-show host, teased Chaplin during a live broadcast this week. “Of course when you see various bloggers and journalists react to this case, saying ‘this is how Christ would have acted,’ or what’s really written in the gospel, it’s wrong and unpleasant,” said Luchenko. “It shows just how unfamiliar the greater society is not only with Orthodox culture, but simply with Orthodoxy in general.”

The divide between an internal church discussion and the inclusion of outside, usually liberal voices is likely to narrow in the coming days. Vera Kichanova, the outspoken 20-year-old winner of a recent municipal election, was “outed” today by Russian bloggers who posted photos from her VKontakte page and claimed that she was a member of “Pussy Riot;” her status as a symbol of grassroots activism will likely serve to turn up the heat on the church if she is arrested. She denied the accusations to the local press today.

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