MOSCOW A bitter rift has opened in the Russian Orthodox Church over a campaign to canonize Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible.
The campaign, which leading Orthodox officials have sought to quash, is spearheaded by a growing revisionist movement in the church.
It believes that Grigori Rasputin, a notoriously dissolute Siberian monk who was murdered by two royalists in 1916 because of his growing influence over Empress Alexandra, was the victim of a Jewish conspiracy.
The movement also contends that Ivan the Terrible, who killed hundreds of priests and even his son in the 16th century, was a deeply religious and humble man who showed great mercy to his enemies.
The canonization campaign began in the early 1990s with a spate of pamphlets and books. Since then, the movement has attracted a growing number of adherents, particularly in the countryside.
The crusade has gained such momentum that theologians allied to the church leadership have felt compelled to condemn it publicly.
Earlier this month, they spoke out against the growing number of newspapers and Internet sites backing the campaign and said the debate could lead to a schism.
“These publications juggle the facts of church history, distort the foundations of the Orthodox faith and ultimately create a sectarian mentality,” they said.
Church historians say the neophyte movement grew out of a branch of Orthodoxy mired in superstition that was popular among peasants at the beginning of the last century.
Many of them believe that Tsar Nicholas II, who was canonized in 2000, should have his status raised to that of co-redeemer, which would put him on a par with Christ.
The movement is strongly anti-Semitic, a potent force in Russia in the 19th century.
One pamphlet written to popularize the sect talks of Rasputin’s “bodily wounds and a ferocious death from the Jews.”
In an official statement issued in 2001, Patriarch Alexy II said of the canonization campaign: “This is madness. What believer would want to stay in a church that equally venerates murderers and martyrs, lechers and saints?”
Viktor Malukhin, the church’s chief spokesman, said that if Ivan the Terrible Russia’s first tsar, formally known as Ivan IV Vasiljevich were canonized, it would automatically mean that his many victims, including Moscow’s Metropolitan Philip, the prelate of the time, would be de-canonized.
“You cannot give glory at the same time to martyrs and their persecutors. This goes against God’s laws and human law,” Mr. Malukhin said.
Konstantin Dushenov, the editor of Rus Pravoslavnaya, a St. Petersburg newspaper backing the campaign, said Rasputin “was a good man whose reputation was destroyed by his political opponents.”
He said when his group tried to discuss the matter with the heads of the church, all they will ever say is that Rasputin was a womanizer and Ivan the Terrible a murderer.
He noted that there are already many icons of the two men in Russia, including one of Ivan the Terrible in the Kremlin.
“The church is furious only because we belong to a movement that is outside its control,” Mr. Dushenov added.