ST. PETERSBURG (ChurchMilitant.com) - A famous Russian Orthodox cathedral is being transferred from government hands to the Russian Orthodox Church. Some are seing the move as a sign of the growing alliance between President Vladimir Putin and the Orthodox Church in Russia, and a signal that he is showing greater favor to Christianity.
Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, except for a very short interlude, has always been owned and operated by the Russian government as a museum. Mikhail Mokretsov, deputy governor of St. Petersburg, recently promised that the city government would make sure that tourists would be allowed access to St. Isaac's. Under the new plan, the city would keep ownership and pay for maintenance costs, but the Church would receive practical control.
Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, commented Thursday, "Nobody is going to limit access to the cathedral. It's in the church's interests to preserve museum heritage." The church has been an important museum and historical site for the past century and is one of St. Petersburg's most visited historical sites.
The decision has not been without controversy and opposition. An online petition against the transfer of control received tens of thousands of signatures. Opponents believe the move will restrict tourists' access to the museum and would lead to the end of concerts at the site.
Boris Vishnevsky, a St. Petersburg lawmaker, wrote on his Facebook page, "In my opinion, this is a grave mistake."
In a 2016 analysis, Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm based in the United States, wrote:
The Orthodox revival gave Russians an identity after the years of uncertainty that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has used this to its advantage, so effectively portraying support for Putin’s government as a religious duty, that the church is now seen as part of the state apparatus.
Marchel Mihaescu, Orthodox bishop of Bălți in Moldova, said, "The voice of the Church and the voice of Russian politicians — not all, but the overwhelming majority of Russian politicians — are the same. For me, Russia is the guardian of Christian values."
Others aren't as optimistic about Russia's relationship with Christians, as the Yarovaya laws, approved last July, prohibit Christians from evangelizing outside of churches.
This package of laws requires missionaries to have permits and provides strict guidelines on where religious activity can take place, which has led to a backlash from Christians inside Russia. The law is affecting Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses the most significantly and has left the Russian Orthodox Church essentially untouched.
Sergei Ryakhovsky, leader of the Protestant Churches of Russia, remarked that the law is "the most draconian, anti-religion bill to be proposed in Russia since Nikita Khrushchev promised to eliminate Christianity in the Soviet Union."
David Aikman, talking to Christianity Today, commented, "The Russian Orthodox Church is part of a bulwark of Russian nationalism stirred up by Vladimir Putin. Everything that undermines that action is a real threat, whether that's evangelical Protestant missionaries or anything else."
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, remarked:
These deeply flawed anti-terrorism measures will buttress the Russian government's war against human rights and religious freedom. They will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent and detain and imprison people. Neither these measures, nor the currently existing anti-extremism law, meet international human rights and religious freedom standards.
A Catholic priest in Russia, talking to Catholic News Agency in July 2016, took a different stance. He commented, "Making churches register with the government is not like slaughtering them wholesale in the millions." He also said that it was "gross hyperbole" for people to compare the law to the Soviet Union's persecution of Christians.