FaithWorld

How East Germany’s communists misunderstood its Protestants

schroederAnniversaries are a time to look back at how the world was before the historic event being commemorated. During a recent trip to Berlin in advance of today’s 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, I asked the former East German theologian and politician Richard Schröder for his recollections of the life as a Protestant pastor before the country fell apart. He zeroed in on a fascinating aspect of the Communists’ anti-religion policy I’d never heard about before. (Photo: Richard Schröder, 21 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

“The Communists who took over in 1945 were trained in Russia,” he told me at his home in a southern suburb of Berlin. “Their model was the Russian Orthodox Church, which focuses heavily on the liturgy. By contrast, Protestant churches have always been a wide field that included Bible study and other discussion groups. All the charity work of the Protestant churches, like their hospitals, were started by what you might call grass roots movements of congregation members. They were not started by the churches themselves. But the Communists always tried to handle us as if we were Russian Orthodox.”

One way to do this was to demand the churches register in advance any meeting except their Sunday church services and the internal sessions of the church leadership. Officials were especially suspicious of the churches’ youth activities, such as camping trips that included Bible study sessions. The churches refused to agree because this would have been a way to block such activities without banning them outright — all they would have to do was fail to issue permission for the meeting. “The state made a second effort to impose this registration, but the churches decided to pay all the fines and not register the meetings. They got away with it. When the officials noticed the churches always paid the 500 mark fine but kept on holding their meetings, they stopped imposing the fine. It took a long time for the Communists to understand that the Protestant churches are a different version of Christianity than the strongly liturgical Orthodox Church.” church-membership1(Image: Falling church membership figures in East Germany — purple for Protestants, yellow for Catholics/ Forum of Contemporary History Leipzig)

Communist officials also seem to have had problems figuring out the theological differences between Russian Orthodox and German Lutherans.  “The Orthodox Church didn’t go through the Enlightenment,” Schröder said. “It maintained a sacred worship in which the miraculous, including some pious fraud, played a big role. Lenin once suggested to use the arguments of the French Enlightenment in the fight against religion. So the East German Communists did that here. They didn’t know that every Protestant theology student here had already learned all these arguments. They were old hat. The state established a chair for atheism at Jena University to promote anti-religious propaganda. The professor started to read Lutheran theology and had to admit it had already had its debate with the Enlightenment. They decided to stop using simple arguments like Darwin versus creationism or that the Sputnik didn’t find God out in space. They saw that didn’t work.”

This change of strategy in the 1970s led to the first meeting in 1978 between party leader Erich Honecker and the Protestant church leadership. The state toned down its atheist propaganda and tried to find ways to cooperate with the churches. “The party was aiming for a modus vivendi to boost good will with West Germany because they needed financial credits from them. West Germany had told East Germany it would measure its good will among other things by how they treated the churches.” This eased the situation for pastors, who didn’t have to fear getting arrested anymore, but officials still harrassed them by barring their children from attending high school.

Russia’s Medvedev calls on muftis to combat extremism

medvedevRussian President Dmitry Medvedev, battling a low-level Muslim insurgency in Russia’s south, has met Muslim leaders and asked them to spread a message of tolerance to combat Islamist extremism.

Medvedev met 12 muftis, Muslim spiritual leaders, from across the country on Wednesday in the pre-revolutionary Congregational Mosque in central Moscow, said by Muslims to be one of the oldest in European Russia. (Photo: President Medvedev (L) and Chief Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin in Moscow, 15 July 2009/RIA Novosti)

Although the Kremlin has calmed the province of Chechnya by installing a strong local leader, violence has flared in other areas of the volatile, poverty-ridden North Caucasus. Killings of police and local officials are on the rise.

Russian Othodox Church picks Kirill, better Vatican ties expected

The Russian Orthodox Church elected Metropolitan Kirill, 62, as its new leader on Tuesday, succeeding Alexiy II who died last month. The new leader of the 165 million-strong Church, the largest in the Orthodox world,  is seen as a moderniser who may thaw long icy ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

There was speculation before the vote that nationalists, anti-westerners and anti-Catholic forces among the clergy and monks might rally to block Kirill’s election. He seemed to take the possibility seriously enough to strike a conservative tone in recent days. In his address before the vote, Kirill spoke of “the assault of aggressive Western secularism against Christianity” and of “attempts by some Protestant groups to revise the teachings of Christianity and evangelical morality”. He also hit out at Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries, saying they sought converts in post-Soviet Russia — a key point of discord with the Vatican. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill before the vote, 27 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

But the vote showed his support was strong. Kirill received 508 votes from a total of 677 valid ballots cast. His rival, conservative nationalist Metropolitan Kliment, 59, polled just 169 votes and a third candidate, Metropolitan Filaret of Belarus, withdrew in favour of Kirill.

Soviet touches mark Russian Orthodox patriarch vote session

(Photo: Russian Orthodox prelates vote for candidates for patriarch, 26 Jan 2009/pool)

There was a slightly Soviet air to the proceedings as bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church voted on Sunday for three candidates to be considered as their new patriarch. Meeting in the gold-domed Christ the Saviour cathedral overlooking the Moskva River, just a few hundred metres from the Kremlin, about 200 metropolitans and bishops had delegates badges dangling from their necks along with their usual pectoral crosses. A Soviet-style “presidium” of 16 top prelates presided over the session in the Hall of Church Councils. The proceedings started with voting for an election committee, a drafting committee and a credentials committee. Journalists covering the session couldn’t help but think of the old communist party conferences.

Seated in the middle of this “presidium,” Metropolitan Kirill — the acting patriarch and frontrunner for the top post — added to the atmosphere by chairing the meeting with a distinctively firm hand. But there were differences, of course. Voting for the three candidates was secret. And when it came time to announce the results of the vote, there was no official stamp to validate the protocol. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill addresses the Council of Bishops, 25 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

For readers outside of Russia, the only other major church election they might have seen in the news was the 2005 Roman Catholic conclave that picked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI. That vote took place behind locked doors in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s famous ceiling and his huge fresco of the Last Judgment behind the altar. Here the “presidium” sat in front of polished stone images of the 12 Apostles in a kind of modern icon style. Journalists were allowed in for the opening of the session,  had to leave during the pre-vote debates but could return for the actual voting and result.

Strong showing for Kirill in first round of Russian Orthodox vote

Frontrunner Metropolitan Kirill made a strong showing in the first round of the Russian Orthodox voting for a new patriarch on Sunday. He won 97 of the 197 votes cast in the Council of Bishops, which picked three candidates for the final voting by the Local Council of about 700 priests, monks and laymen this week. His main rival, Metropolitan Kliment, picked up 32 votes while the third candidate, Metropolitan Filaret, got 16 votes.

See a full report here from our Moscow bureau. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill, 19 Oct 2008/Ramon Espinosa)

The next round of voting, to be held in a Local Council session lasting from Tuesday to Thursday, requires a  majority of 99 votes. That puts Kirill just two votes behind the magic number. If one of the three candidates does not get an outright majority, the third man drops out and the two others go into a run-off. Church watchers say the Local Council will have many delegates who are more nationalist, anti-western and anti-ecumenical minded than Kirill and might vote for anyone but him. Watch this space…

In Moscow next week, it’s all about Kirill

The Russian Orthodox Church election of a new patriarch next week is shaping up as a vote for or against Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.  Already the acting head of the Church since the death of Patriarch Alexiy II last month, Kirill is the clear frontrunner and the man who other churches — especially the Roman Catholic Church — would like to see take the top post. Those two factors, though, could work against him when the Council of Bishops and the Local Council — the two bodies that conduct the election — meet. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill, 6 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

Dmitry Solovyov in our Moscow bureau has provided a rundown of the leading candidates in the election, which begins with the meeting of the Council of Bishops on Jan. 25-26, and a rundown of the leading candidates. The bishops will propose three candidates, who will then be voted on by the Local Council of 711 representatives of clergy and laity during its Jan. 27-29 session. The new patriarch will be installed on Feb. 1.

This will be the first patriarchal election since the end of the Soviet Union (the last one was in 1990, a year before communism collapsed there) and since the spectacular revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. One effect very visible abroad was the higher profile the Church has taken in ecumenical exchanges. Less visible to those outside Russia are the different currents in the Church, such as nationalists, anti-westerners, critics of ecumenism and others, who oppose that new openness and activism. If they can close ranks, they could block Kirill’s ascension.

Russian Orthodox church removes wild card from new patriarch’s election

One of the most intriguing questions about the voting for a  new Russian Orthodox patriarch on Jan. 27-29 has been answered. Speculation about the succession began as soon as the late Patriarch Alexiy died in December, but it had an unusual extra layer of uncertainty. Orthodox church leaders sometimes elect the top three candidates and then pick the winner by drawing lots. This, they say, lets the Holy Spirit have the final say. So even a strong front-runner could be passed over.

During the Roman Catholic Church’s papal transition in 2005,  we speculated about the papabili (papal contenders) for days and explained in detail the complex rules for the election of a new pope. The “apostolic method,” as the election by lots is called, would inject additional uncertainty into the Orthodox vote — if  they used it. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill leads Orthodox Christmas service in Moscow’s Christ The Saviour Cathedral, 7 Jan. 2009/pool)

But Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the acting patriarch who is also a front-runner, has indicated that this wild card has been taken out of the patriarchal election procedure. In an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, he said earlier heads of the Church had usually been chosen by the tsar or elected in open ballots. “His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy II was elected by secret ballot out of three candidates suggested by the Archbishop Council,” Kirill said. “Years of his ministry proved it was the right choice made by God’s will.”

Russian Orthodox to elect new patriarch in late January

The Russian Orthodox are wasting no time with the election of their new leader to replace the late Patriarch Alexiy. Although Church statutes give them six months to ponder the decision, a Holy Synod meeting today decided to hold a General Council in late January to elect a successor.

“On Jan. 27 the General Council will open. It will be held on Jan. 28-29,” acting Partriarch Kirill — one of the frontrunning candidates — said in Moscow.

“Jan. 30-31 will be dedicated to preparations for the enthronement of the newly elected Holy Patriarch. The enthronement will be held on Feb. 1,” he told journalists in Moscow.

Kirill interim Russian Orthodox head, final outcome unclear

The Russian Orthodox Church has chosen Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as its interim leader, picking one of its best-known personalities to stand in until a successor to the late Patriarch Alexiy II can be chosen. The Church’s charter says this must happen within the next six months, but crucially does not say exactly how the new man should be picked. That introduces a potential wild card into the equation, the so-called “apostolic method” of election that leaves the final decision to be decided by drawing lots. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill, 19 Oct 2008/Ramon Espinosa)

Kirill, 64, has headed the Church’s department for external relations for two decades and has been active in the ecumenical movement abroad. He is considered relatively open to cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, which has been trying for years to arrange a papal visit to Moscow despite tensions over Orthodox charges the Vatican is trying to win over Orthodox to Catholicism. At home, most Russians see him as the public face of the Church, at least partly because of his frequent appearances on television.

While he is considered a front-runner, he reportedly does not have strong support among the bishops, who are considered more nationalist and less outward-looking than he is. Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk is said to be more to their liking. Metropolitan Juvenali of Krutitsy and Kolomna and Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk are also mentioned as possible contenders.

How TASS got the scoop on the last Russian Orthodox election

The death of Russian Orthodox Patriach Alexiy II and talk about his possible successor got Aleksandras Budrys, a correspondent in our Moscow bureau, to reminiscing about how he covered Alexiy’s election in 1990 for the official news agency TASS. Here’s his account of reporting on religion near the end of communism in Russia: (Photo: Patriarch Alexiy II, 30 April 2000/Vladimir Suvorov)

As a TASS correspondent for religious issues, I was the first to report the election of Patriarch Alexiy II in early June 1990. The scoop was made possible because I was allowed to stay in monk’s cells at the monastery where the vote took place while all the other journalists were sent away.

The election process took a little less than three days. On the first day, all the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church gathered at the refectory church at the Holy Trinity and St Sergius monastery outside Moscow.