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Why Orthodox believers are converting to other Christian denominations

April 29, 2013, 16:27 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, April 29 (Itar-Tass) - Experts say there is a tendency in Russia, although a subtle one so far, of converting from the Russian Orthodox Church to other Christian denominations, such as Catholicism or Protestantism. This is because, they explain, believers often disagree with the position of the Russian Orthodox Church leaders on the most pressing problems of Russian society. In some cases, scandals around individual clergymen are to blame.

A feature article on that topic recently published by the Novye Izvestia daily has triggered heated debates on internet forums. Many tend to share experts’ opinion and say that the conversion to other Christian denomination is no betrayal. The Russian Orthodox Church however says that any talk about people fleeing Orthodoxy is absurd.

The newspaper cites one particular example when a man, Vladimir Tsykarev, converted to Catholicism 11 months ago. In his words, he was about to do so long ago, even before the notorious scandals over the patriarch’s luxurious watch, his exuberant apartment and “brutal pronouncements of the Russian Orthodox Church in respect of the backsliding women” (the girls from the Pussy Riot punk group). “I could no longer put up with their voicing man-hating ideas and appeals on behalf of myself as a Christian,” Tsykarev noted.

The recent polls conducted by the Levada-Center public opinion agency demonstrate a six-percent decrease since 2009 in the number of those who reckon themselves among Orthodox believers. However there is no official statistics of conversion from Orthodoxy to other divisions within Christianity in Russia. But there are data about the number of officially registered Christian communities (parishes, monasteries, town churches, etc.) published by the ministry of justice. So, according to these data, by September 2012, there were 14,616 Orthodox communities, 4,409 Protestant communities, and 234 Catholic communities.

“Both Catholic and Protestant communities are demonstrating explosive development and this tendency has been picking up in the past three years,” the newspaper cites Roman Lunkin, the president of the Guild of Experts in Religion and Law. As a matter of fact, he said, there are much more Protestant and Catholic organizations than listed in the justice ministry’s report. “Depending on the region, from a third to a half of communities are not registered,” he claims. “Only every third community in Russia is registered. Actually, we have about 15,000 Protestant communities,” says Professor Anatoly Pchelintsev of the Religions Study Centre under the Russian State University of the Humanities.

According to opinion polls, from 56 to 80 percent of Russian nationals speak about themselves as Orthodox believers. Pchelintsev however maintains that the majority of them have no idea of the fundamentals of the religion and tend to call themselves Orthodox believers only by virtue of ethnic identity. The number of real Orthodox believers, experts say, is somewhere in the range between three to seven percent. And such people change their religion next to never.

The Orthodox Church is tending to offer a state ideology instead of a pure religious doctrine, says Lunkin. “Along with the religion as such, or sometimes instead of the faith in Christ, the Russian Orthodox Church tends to propagate the faith in Holy Rus, in the state, in patriotic values, in United Russia [the ruling political party], anything but the faith in Christ. People who convert to other Christian denominations make a deliberate choice of pure religion,” he says.

According to the expert, the recent scandal over Pussy Riot’s punk prayer also averted some from the Russian Orthodox Church. Not because people sympathize with the girls but rather because they “see Orthodoxy as a cog in the state machine, which lacks mercy and commitment to gospel commandments.”

“We are witnessing a kind of faith crisis in Russia. And it stems from the unethical behavior of Orthodox priests involved in ether car crashes or illegal construction works. It averts people from the church,” Pchelintsev says.

The newspaper reminds that in the midst of the Pussy Riot scandal, such people as Deacon Sergei Baranov and Rodion Popov of the Institute of the Bible Translation publicly severed their relations with the church. Notably, but in December 2012 Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill said he knew nothing about conversion from Orthodoxy triggered by media scandals. “Loud statements” by some persons about their losing faith in the Russian Orthodox Church proves only that “these people have never belonged to the church either in their faith or in their way of life,” the patriarch then said.

In one of his interviews, another church official, the head of the Synodal department for relations between the Church and society, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, also said that any talk about conversion from Orthodoxy was absurd. “Yes, there is a small number of people who swerved from the church. But in the past two or three years, most of unbelievers or half-believers have come to Orthodoxy,” he said.

Meanwhile, the subject raised by the Novye Izvestia has drawn a wide public response in the web. Thus, a user nicknamed Dima123 says it does not matter which denomination is chosen to serve Christ. “The matter is that many things that happen in the Russian Orthodox Church avert people from it, but it in no way means that one should rush immediately to another denomination. Neither it means that this is good,” he writes.

Another web user, Igor Petrov, writes about what he dislikes about Orthodoxy. “I have not yet seen prayer books in the modern Russian language. I can hardly endure an Orthodox service to the very end, not because it is difficult for me to stay standing on feet but because I understand next to nothing in what is sung by the priests or the choir,” he writes in his post. Sometimes, he writes, a conversation with a priest during the confession brings no conciliation because “some priests demonstrate a very formal approach.” “This is why I began to read books about Protestantism, which affirms the priesthood of all believers, when a man communicates directly to God without any priests.”

“Although being baptized as an Orthodox (and being an ethnic Russian), I converted to Protestantism,” writes Yevgeny. “I do not think of myself as a betrayer. I share Igor Petrov’s feelings about Orthodoxy. More to it, the aggressive criticism by Orthodox believers of Protestantism or Catholicism is repulsing. I have been a Protestant for more than a year and I have no regrets about it.”

“The problems are quite understandable,” writes Irina Dmitriyeva. “I see nothing awful when people depart from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to try to give meaning to their faith.”