In my five years covering the religion beat full-time here, I had written zero stories, blogs or columns about Orthodox. In the past month, I’ve written three.
Many readers may not know of Patriarch Alexiy, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, but he died today in his sleep in Moscow after a time of ill health. His time overseeing the Russian church had spanned 19 years, during which the Soviet Union lost huge chunks of territory when it dissolved in 1991. I am guessing the influence of the church waned in these breakaway republics as well. Judging by the seven weeks I spent in Kazakhstan last year, Orthodoxy still had its hold on the older set but the young didn’t attend church there at all. Meanwhile, evangelical Protestants are in the country seeking to win over these would-be Orthodox into their fold. The Muslim-leaning government allows this, as long as the evangelicals leave the Muslims alone. Unfortunately, late last month, the Kazakh parliament passed a draconian law severely limiting religious practice.
I am guessing Orthodoxy isn’t exactly growing in the other former Soviet republics as well, although they’re doing quite nicely compared to the horrific suffering experienced by groups such as the Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Anyway, a nice piece in the London Times sums up the patriarch’s career and some of the bright lights and shadows on his career. The patriarch played a memorable role in the downfall of the Soviet Union but was also reputed to have KGB ties.The patriarch was also quite unhappy with efforts by religious groups in the West plus the Catholic Church to gain converts on Russian soil. The Catholics and evangelical Protestants reasoned that large chunks of the Russian population were estranged for good from the Orthodox Church and that the sea was free for fishing. Alexiy bore so much ill will toward Rome on this topic that he refused to meet with the last two popes who clearly wanted to visit Russia. An article in Die Welt talks of his insistance that other religions stay out of “traditionally Orthodox Russian lands,” a position that holds little water in this era of globalization.
My guess is the new patriarch will be a man of the 21st century who will welcome Pope Benedict XVI to Moscow sometime in the near future.