- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Americans are not the only ones wrestling with religious symbols in public places.
One Russian city has chosen to put the face of Jesus Christ on its regional flag, causing both joy and consternation among its residents, who include Christians, Muslims and Jews.
The new flag may also indicate that Christ has become politically correct in a country on an official search for its Orthodox roots.
Penza, an industrial center of more than 1 million people 400 miles southeast of Moscow, has officially adopted a simple, emerald-green flag with Christ in its center.
"The Orthodox Church, the Catholics and the Cossacks support it," Culture Minister Yury Leptev told broadcast network NTV, which reported that the face of President Vladimir Putin had been considered for the flag.
Local Muslim and Jewish communities, Mr. Leptev said, were in favor of the new version, which replaces a design emblazoned with the city's coat of arms: three sheaves of wheat surrounded by gold filigree and red accents.
Communists were opposed to the new flag, Mr. Leptev said, "even though some of them go to church."
This textile image of Christ, rendered in the striking medieval style of a traditional Russian icon, may represent a milestone as the country returns to old spiritual ways in the post-communist era.
"President Putin has made increasing the visibility of the Orthodox Church a priority in his attempts to rebuild the national identity," said Peter Rutland, a political scientist at Wesleyan University and an editor with the nonprofit Jamestown Foundation, a District-based research group that monitors the former Soviet republics.
"The design of the flag could be a show of loyalty to Moscow, perhaps. The downside is that it points to state-approved religion. This may be a more political than spiritual gesture," Mr. Rutland said.
Although there has been a surprising resurgence of Christianity and eager renovation of Orthodox churches and cathedrals across the Russian landscape, there is still the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organization law to consider, he said.
It was passed by the Russian Duma in 1997 and imposes certain restrictions on Christian evangelicals, Protestant sects, the Salvation Army and other groups, requiring them to register with the state.
Still, the image of Christ speaks on a higher level.
"It is completely remarkable to me that an image of Christ would appear on a Russian secular banner," said the Rev. Charles Nalls of Christ the King, an Anglican parish in the District.
"Regardless of any underlying political motivations, this is still pretty incredible," he said. "The icon of Christ is dear to the hearts of Russians, and it was not too long ago that their flag only featured Lenin on a red background."
The Moscow Times recently reported that some Penza locals are troubled by the new design, despite official assertions to the contrary.
"It's untimely," a spokeswoman for Berl Lazar, one of two chief rabbis in Russia, told the newspaper.
"It looks fake," said a Moscow-based Muslim official. "Jesus was not born in Penza. You need to ask why he is on the flag."
But Mr. Leptev, the culture minister, defended the choice, saying a local legend justifies using the image of Christ on the flag. According to the story, Ivan the Terrible stopped in the city on his way through the region in the 16th century and promised to present an icon of Jesus to the citizenry upon his return.
"How can they be worried?" asked Mr. Leptev of his critics. "We didn't take anything religious. We didn't take a cross."
Meanwhile, there is little discussion about civic involvement with Jesus Christ in the city of Valparaiso, a port near Santiago, Chile. Officials on the City Council said they have presented the keys of the city to Christ.
"What I ask is for Jesus to be recognized as a spiritual leader," said Marisol Panaigue, who leads the group and proposed the idea.

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