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In Russia, Thou Shalt not Disagree With the Orthodox Church

Police Raid Home of Activists Opposed to Church Construction

How did local residents trying to preserve a park in Moscow end up the target of a criminal investigation for “insulting religious feelings”?

Torfyanka activists during a protest, Moscow, August 2016. © 2016 Vladimir Ruscher

The story starts in 2013, when the Russian Orthodox Church got approval to build a church in Moscow’s Torfyanka park and quickly built a temporary shed and installed a large cross. Soon, the church was running weekly, open-air Sunday services. Church-goers quarreled with park visitors about noise and how children playing were disrupting prayer. Religious activists clashed with environmental activists. Everyone was unhappy.

From the start, a group of local residents spoke out vehemently against the project. They held signs saying their protest was not against the Church, but to preserve the park.

In 2015, local authorities reached a compromise, allocating a plot outside the park for the church construction. But the Church refused to leave the park and sporadic protests – tense but mostly peaceful – continued.

Early the morning of Monday, November 14, masked and armed riot police units came to the activists’ homes. Police smashed the door of one apartment and cut through the lock of another’s front door. One activist said at least 15 armed policemen came to arrest him. They threw him on the floor, handcuffed him in front of his children, and took him away.

A pro-Kremlin television channel was at the scene almost instantly, cameras rolling. It later aired a story referring to the activists as “neo-pagans” and “members of a cell” who had “ammunition and psychotropic drugs” in their apartments. The head of the Church, patriarch Kirill, called the protesters “cultists” and “pagans”.

The police searched activists’ apartments for several hours, confiscating computers and phones. The activists were taken to a police station to answer questions on a criminal case about “insulting religious feelings.” They were interrogated without lawyers on their views of the orthodox church and whether they were affiliated with radical groups. All were released without charges, but the criminal investigation continues.

The ties between the Russian state and the orthodox church run deep. The government extensively relies on the Church for endorsement and support, and the Church receives the government’s generous financial backing. The disturbing lack of separation between the two has led to public criticism, corruption allegations, and protests. In 2013, following the infamous Pussy Riot trial, which ended with band members’ conviction for “hooliganism,” the Russian parliament pushed through a law making it a crime to offend someone’s religious feelings.

While it’s not clear how this story will end for the Torfyanka protesters, if they angered the Russian Orthodox Church, the odds are not in their favor.

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