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Is the Russian Orthodox Church serving God or Putin?

Caroline Schmitt
April 26, 2017

Has the Russian Orthodox Church become Putin's tool of state policy in questions of human rights and even politics? "Conflict Zone" host Tim Sebastian talks to church representative Vakhtang Kipshidze in Moscow.

DW Conflict Zone Zitattafel - Vakhtang Kipshidze
Image: DW/M. Martin

Vakhtang Kipshidze on Conflict Zone

Today, 26 years after the end of the Russian Orthodox Church's repression during the Soviet era, church and state in Russia share extremely close ties. One glaring example was the jail sentence of three Pussy Riot band members who protested against Putin in Moscow's Orthodox cathedral in 2012. President Putin's and Patriarch Kirill's stances on issues of foreign policy, family values, and human rights all too often go hand in hand. 

The Russian Orthodox Church, which has around 165 million members worldwide, has a history of opposing homosexuality, which it considers a sin. In August 2013, its Patriarch Kirill declared same sex marriage to be a sign of the impending apocalypse and urged people to do more to combat the rise of gay rights. 

"We don't criticize gays, we criticize sin," Vakhtang Kipshidze, a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church told DW in an exclusive interview. Responding to allegations that Russia turns gay citizens into targets subject to police violence, Kipshidze said: "We are against violence. We are against violence which is directed to any social groups." 

Speaking on behalf of the Church, Kipshidze, who is the Vice Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for Church's Society and Media Relations, explained: "We consider family to be a union of one woman and one man." Everything that is working towards eliminating this structure "we consider immoral," he told DW's Tim Sebastian on "Conflict Zone." He also defined sinners as people who "drink too much, are not faithful to their wives or husbands, up drugs, commit abortions." He said that they "destroy" their own happiness.

And the state follows through. In April 2017, human rights groups reported a brutal campaign against LGBT people that has been sweeping through Chechnya and the Muslim areas of the Caucasus region in the South. Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, first reported on the case, saying that at least 100 gay men had been arrested and three killed. Gays in Chechnya and the North Caucasus are in "lethal danger", Igor Kochetkov, director of the Russian LGBT Network told The New York Times

EU top diplomat Frederica Mogherini said in April that Russia had a duty to protect the human rights of all its citizens, responding to a question posed at the news conference about the alleged persecution of gay men in Chechnya.

Decriminalizing domestic violence 

Another group church and state have failed to protect are women and children. In January 2017, the Orthodox Church and conservative members of parliament pushed though legislation that decriminalizes domestic violence. After the controversial amendment that Russian President Putin signed into law in February, only injuries like concussions or broken bones would lead to criminal charges. First-time offenders who do not cause serious medical damage will go without punishment. 

The Church said in a statement last year that physical punishment was a Russian tradition and thus should be protected as "an essential right given to parents by God." According to Russia's Interior Ministry, 40 percent of all grave violent crimes are committed in families.

When Tim Sebastian confronted the church official with this attitude ("Where's your compassion?"), Kipshidze said: "We are against violence in families. But we don’t want state to control internal family life." 

Sebastian asked: "And they should support people who abuse and beat up their wives? You support that? Just because it's the way families are?" Kipshidze responded: "You should support family training in schools, not sexual education but family training. So that no husband would ever think about beating his wife." Human Rights Watch said that as many as 36,000 women and 26,000 children are reported to face violence in the family in Russia every day. An estimated 12,000 women die annually from domestic violence, that is one woman in every 40 minutes. 

Controversy over Crimea

The Russian Orthodox Church is also supportive of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Patriarch Kirill said an "internal political crisis" in Ukraine was threatening its territorial integrity as Russian troops were seizing control of Crimea in March 2014. 

A church official called it "the peacemaking mission that should guarantee Crimean citizens the right to self-determination," echoing and endorsing Putin's line of argument. 

Kipshidze said: "Our attitude is totally different. We are a single church for Ukrainians and Russians and that is why we don't care about interstate borders. We care about church borders."

There are reports of clergy who didn't have Russian citizenship, including Greek and Roman Catholics and those belonging to the Kiev Patriarchate, who were forced to leave Crimea. "I don't know the details but I think that they were forced to leave because they don't want to follow the Russian laws. And Russian laws are effective there, whether we want that or not," he said. 
The Church has also backed the Kremlin in other foreign issues like the Russian support of the Assad regime that was responsible for 300,000 deaths, according to former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "What we actually supported is a struggle against terrorism."

When Tim Sebastian said his church supported the Russian government "one hundred percent" and therefore identified with Assad's policies, Kipshidze said: "But that's not government. We support state as (…) a mechanism that is better than chaos."

"We're not being used. We cooperate with the state," he added. Does Kipshidze make a convincing case? Find out now on "Conflict Zone."

Ban Ki-moon on Conflict Zone