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Proposal for enshrining special role of Orthodoxy in Constitution sparks

November 26, 2013, 17:16 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara
© ITAR-TASS/Alexey Nikolski

MOSCOW, November 26./ITAR-TASS/. - A large group of Russian entrepreneurs, public figures and scientists have called for defining a special role of Orthodoxy in the Constitution. The appeal has been submitted to the president, the two houses of the Russian Parliament and Russian regional legislative assemblies.

This initiative to declare a special role of the main religion, but far from the only one in Russia, in the country's constitution has met with both harsh criticism and unequivocal approval.

Along with entrepreneurs, among the signatories are heads of research institutes, historians and political scientists. The petitioners say their address was the final document of the conference titled ‘The Triumph and Collapse of an Empire: Lessons from History’. According to the appeal, the 1917 revolution was rooted in “the loss of Orthodox self-consciousness and churchism by a considerable part of nobles and intellectuals, the neglect of ethnic identity that developed on the basis of Christian rules and traditions, as well as the denial of Orthodoxy.”

“The state sovereignty of the Russian Federation is law. Our call is for backing up its spiritual sovereignty, too, by declaring the Orthodoxy’s special role in the Russian Constitution,” the petitioners say. In their message the word Orthodoxy is invariably capitalized (contrary to the rules of current Russian grammar).

Russia has no official statistics as to the membership of religious organizations. Obliging individuals to declare their religious affiliation is prohibited by law. According to the poll conducted by the Russian public opinion studies center VTsIOM in 2010, 75 percent of respondents were Orthodox Christians, 5 percent said they professed Islam, while Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Buddhism made up 1 percent each, followed by about 1 percent of other religions. Non-believers account for 8 percent of respondents, the poll’s results say.

Well aware the proposal would spark a controversy in society, one of the reasons being Russia’s multinationality, the petitioners say: “This measure is by no means intended to infringe upon the rights of other traditional religious communities in Russia. Russian public figure and thinker Leo Tikhomirov aptly described Russia as ‘a family of ethnicities gathered around the Orthodox Russian people’.”

The practice of assigning a special status to a religion is widespread in the European countries today - Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Poland, Greece and Finland, the appeal says. Besides, one can recall that Islam and Buddhism are recognized as official religions in many Asian countries.

One of the authors, invariably articulate and sharp-tongued TV commentator Mikhail Leontyev, deems the initiative “right and timely.”

“If it is not passed, it will be a shame for the State Duma (the Parliament’s lower house),” he said. Leontiev believes it would be inappropriate to borrow from the European experience in this respect. "That the founders of the European Commission dreaded stating the Christian roots of the European civilization in the European Charter is their own headache,” Leontyev said.

On Monday, the initiative was approved by the State Duma's members at a meeting of the inter-fraction group with the participation of the Russian Orthodox Church.

But far from everybody shares this view.

“Article 14 of the Constitution adopted twenty years ago saying that ‘no religion may be established as a state or obligatory one’ and ‘religious associations shall be separated from the state and shall be equal before the law’ has not disturbed anybody. Under the current Constitution, the Russian Orthodox Church has acquired leadership among the religions present in Russia. It does not lack influence in society, so there is no need to state its special role in the Constitution,” the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Valery Tishkov, told Itar-Tass.

Tishkov believes this measure would cause outrage among the followers of other religions. It will hardly achieve anything positive, but may well have adverse consequences. He warned against any hasty decisions to translate the initiative into reality.

The scholar cited the example of Great Britain, where the Queen’s status as head of the Anglican Church had been recognized officially until fifteen years ago, when the country’s religious make-up changed.

Sergey Markov, a member of Russia's Civic Chamber, Director of the Institute for Political Studies, also sees no need for awarding a special status to Orthodoxy.

“Giving a religion an official status will alienate people, like it happened in the last days of the Russian Empire, which led to the 1917 Revolution and the sufferings of Russian Orthodox Church priests from the Red Terror of the Bolshevik party,” he told Itar-Tass.

Notably, the latest poll by VTsIOM has shown that 44 percent of Russians believe Orthodoxy is the official religion in Russia, with the president’s religious affiliation being an important issue for a vast majority (64 percent). Moreover, 50 percent said having a president professing a religion other than Orthodoxy would be unacceptable.

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