Russian Evangelicals Leery of Orthodox Church

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MOSCOW, Russia -- For decades, the Russian Orthodox Church was persecuted under the Soviet Union's Communist Party.

Since the early 1990s, the church has grown in size and influence as its relationship with the Russian government has improved significantly.

However, that cozy relationship worries the country's evangelicals.

Threats Against Evangelicals

For eight years, Yuri Sipko ran one of the largest Baptist organizations in Russia. Now, 20 years after the fall of Communism, he worries about the growing threats against the country's evangelical movement.

"The collapse of Communism was supposed to usher in an era of greater religious freedom, but I'm concerned we are moving in the wrong direction," Sipko said.

What makes the Russian evangelicals very concerned is an emerging relationship between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church.

"For example, the government recently introduced religious classes based on the principals of the Orthodox Church in public schools," Sipko said.

"Then late last year, the Russian president announced an initiative to appoint Orthodox chaplains to all army units," he said. "Our constitution clearly states no religion can be the state religion."

Russia Church-State Relations

Russia watchers credit two men, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, for elevating the church's prominence. The state media has also played a key role, often showing the leaders attending church services.

Sergey Ryakhovski knows both men well. As head of Russia's Pentecostal Union, he meets regularly with top government and Orthodox Church leaders.

Ryakhovski worries that the Orthodox Church's influence is coming at the expense of religious freedom, especially for minority groups such as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.

"There are so many laws and by-laws that regulate religious life in Russia," Ryakhovski said. "For example, evangelical Christians just can't go out and buy a church building or buy a piece of land to build a church."

"Plus, criticizing or challenging the Orthodox Church is not a task for all," he added.

Orthodox Church Revival

The Russian Orthodox Church on the other hand has had it easy in recent times after decades of state persecution.

Church buildings that were destroyed during the Soviet era have been rebuilt with Russian taxpayer money. In the past 20 years, the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars restoring some 23,000 churches.

Most Russians say they belong to the Orthodox Church. Yet CBN News found mixed reactions on the streets of Moscow to the growing bond between church and state.

"I belong to the church and I'm happy to see our leaders embrace the institution," one Moscow resident said.

"But we just need to look to the Islamic countries in the Middle East to see the potential dangers of such a strong relationship between religion and state," another resident warned.

Roman Lunkin, a human rights advocate based in Moscow, said the head of the Orthodox Church is on a mission to expand its powers and influence.

"Patriarch Kirill, the new head of the Russian Orthodox Church, is attempting to turn the church into a more missionary-oriented religion and to depart from the old image of orthodoxy as a museum religion that is old and out of date," said Lunkin, who runs the Slavic Center for Law & Justice.

Orthodox vs. Evangelicals

The Orthodox Church's biggest competitors are the evangelical, charismatic congregations, which are experiencing tremendous growth.

"So many Russians are leaving the Orthodox Church and joining the charismatic churches and they don't like it," Ryakhovski said.

Ryakhovski gave CBN News a document produced by a leading Russian research group and backed by the Orthodox Church. The paper was titled, "Ways to weaken the potential of neo-Pentecostal sects and to help their victims."

"These new charismatic and Pentecostal churches are viewed as cults and something to be suspicious of," Lunkin said.

Once a persecuted minority, evangelical Christians in Russia and the surrounding countries that once made up the former Soviet Union, are now exerting more influence in society by displaying what it means to be a true follower of Jesus Christ.

"People are looking for meaning, they are looking for authentic lifestyles, authentic relationships," Sipko told CBN News. "And so in the midst of all the economic and social changes, we have the opportunity to demonstrate what a personal relationship with Jesus is like."

*Original broadcast April 26

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George Thomas

George Thomas

CBN News Sr. Reporter

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