Cats in the bag

There was no surprise in the verdict of guilt handed down to three members of Pussy Riot in Moscow today.  That they were guilty of an offence was clear - they held a demonstration in the principal 'state' church in Moscow, before the iconostasis not at the altar (as was repeatedly reported), that was widely held as sacrilegious. That they did not do this out of obvious enmity to religion as such, as they were charged, was equally clear, but to protest the Church hierarchy's support, articulated by Patriarch Kirill, for Mr Putin's re-election.

In any democracy, the offence and the wider issue of freedom of expression, would have been weighed in the balance and the band members would have been a night time news item (on a slow day), and forgotten. I doubt whether it would have merited a prosecution of any kind. A church spokesman would have been wheeled out to express their shock or distress or both but not to push for harsh prosecution (unlike their confreres in the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church). Witness when Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights campaigner, interrupted the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, in mid-sermon to protest the Church's attitudes to gays. He was frog marched, politely but firmly, out of the Church and was on the news that evening, caused some discussion, including with my mother on discrimination, and that was it!

However, as an opinion poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group today showed only six per cent had sympathy with the women, 51 per cent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.

This is telling not least by suggesting that this particular act of protest fell like ripe fruit into the hands of Mr Putin. He could use it, and has, to differentiate those protesting for democracy (a word still laden in Russia by memories of the chaotic [if exciting] 90s) from the majority of Russians. The 'protesting minority' are not like 'us' - they are like the young women of Pussy Riot, silly at best, stridently opposed to 'our values' at worst: a metropolitan minority.

The hierarchy of the Church emerges from this where you would expect them to be aligned with the regime and with the gut reaction of the majority of Russians. This is where Church hierarchies often find themselves, simply a mirror of the safest place to be (for the time being), not challenging people with the Gospel: here with the preeminent demand for forgiveness but lining up with the Pharisees of every age and race to enforce the law. 

"And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins" to quote the Gospel of Matthew. It could not be simpler or more difficult. It may give Patriarch Kirill and his shadow, Fr Chaplain, pause for thought when next they stand at the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. 

Conversion is always a possibility of those who persecute in the name of their tradition. They may, one day, like Saul meet Christ and be surprised out of their judgement into a new world of freedom (at least temporarily)!


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