The Russian Orthodox church has been attacked for supporting a new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, at the end of a year that saw it plagued by scandal and accusations of collusion with an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.
Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-ranking priest and a spokesman for the church, said the law was “a search for a social answer to an elementary question: why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?”
Speaking to Interfax, a state news agency, last week, Chaplin said the path to heaven would be closed to children adopted by foreigners. “They won’t get a truly Christian upbringing and that means falling away from the church and from the path to eternal life, in God’s kingdom,” he said.
Vladimir Putin, Russia‘s president, signed the controversial ban into law on Friday, in retaliation for a new US law that bans Russian officials accused of human rights abuses from travelling to or having bank accounts in the United States.
The ban, which effectively targets the hundreds of thousands of children condemned to Russia’s decrepit orphanage system, has been widely criticised by many Russians, including some of Putin’s most loyal ministers. Chaplin later said the law should include exceptions for ill children who required medical treatment abroad.
Critics say the church’s support for the law is the latest example of its submission to the Kremlin, in which it acts more like a government ministry than an independent spiritual body.
“Everything is repeating – it’s like the 19th century, when the church lay completely under the state,” said Valery Otstavnykh, a theologist and Kremlin critic. “Everything was calm and fine until churches started getting blown up in 1917 and they all asked, ‘Why?’ ”
The arrest of Pussy Riot thrust the church into the spotlight this year. When members of the feminist punk band performed a song inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February, begging the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out”, their goal was to highlight the church’s explicit politicisation. Patriarch Kirill, the church’s leader, repeatedly praised Putin during his contentious presidential campaign, once calling the era of his rule a “miracle of God”.
Maria Alyokhina, a Pussy Riot member serving a two-year jail sentence after being found guilty of charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, said during the trial: “I thought the church loved all its children, but it seems the church loves only those children who believe in Putin.”
The case opened the floodgates on church scandals, with particular attention on its alleged corruption. The church has grown rich under Putin, and has been given vast tracts of valuable land and property. It also runs several businesses, including a bank. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour maintains several firms on the site, including a car wash and a business centre it rents out for conferences.
In early April, Patriarch Kirill was involved in a dispute over a property he owned in the House on the Embankment, once home to the Soviet elite. A renovation by his neighbour, a former health minister, prompted a lawsuit in which Kirill won 20 million roubles (£400,000) – which he later said he would donate to charity. The lawsuit revealed that a woman – identified as a “keeper” named Lidia Leonova – was living in his flat, prompting widespread speculation.
On the heels of that scandal, came another. The church apologised for publishing on its website a photograph of Patriarch Kirill in which an expensive watch had been airbrushed from his wrist. The $30,000 Breguet still appeared in a reflection in the photograph.
In August, a priest crashed a BMW with diplomatic plates in central Moscow. In October, another priest assaulted two women pensioners in a fit of road rage in St Petersburg. Later that month, Russia’s opposition cried foul after the church decreed that priests could run for political office. Two weeks later, the state news agency RIA-Novosti cited an anonymous source as saying that a bordello was uncovered in a Moscow monastery.
“The church has also done a lot of good,” said Otstavnykh. “But the church as an organisation must change.”