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Will the Church in Russia speak out over attacks on gay people?

A gay rights activist is kicked as he lies on the ground in front of Moscow City Hall

On the verge of an urban roundabout, hemmed in by a battered fence, crop-haired youths brandishing baseball bats surround a young man in an orange T-shirt. Moments later, the youngster lies gasping and pleading on the ground, as a thick knee is pressed to his neck and heavy boots kick at his torso. The video bears the slick logo of Occupy Pedofilyaj, a Russian vigilante group, and is just one of dozens posted on the internet to frighten gays and lesbians. They provide chilling images of the hardships facing homosexuals in Russia and neighbouring ex-Soviet republics, which have prompted calls for foreign sanctions and a boycott of next February’s Winter Olympics. 

While Russia’s predominant Orthodox Church has long implicitly backed the campaign against homosexuals, smaller faith groups, including the Catholic Church, have said nothing against it and done little to help its victims.

“While the Catholic Church is against homosexual practices, it also opposes homophobia,” explained Mgr Igor Kovalevsky, secretary-general of Russia’s Catholic bishops’ conference. “But homosexuality is a totally marginal issue in Russian society. There’s no great interest in it here and very few homosexuals in our Catholic communities.”
Homosexuality was de-criminalised in Russia in 1993, two years after the collapse of Communist rule, and removed from the list of mental illnesses in 1999. But pressure against gays and lesbians has been growing, while violent assaults, often documented and filmed, are routinely ignored by the police. This year alone, while brutal murders in Volgograd, Kamchatka and other areas have instilled a climate of fear, according to human rights groups, the Russian Army has issued new guidelines for dealing with homosexual recruits, and plans have been laid for nationwide screening of homosexuals to prevent HIV.  
European Union surveys rank Russia alongside Muslim countries as among the least tolerant of homosexuals. With no law against sexual discrimination, few public figures have ever declared their homosexuality, while victims of harassment have no confidence in the authorities and rarely reports acts of violence.

Controversy over the plight of gays and lesbians reached a peak in June, when federal amendments to Russia’s child protection law were enacted unanimously in the State Duma, banning the “propagation of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”.
Critics say the law, though aimed at protecting under-18s, is deliberately vague in its wording, and effectively makes it illegal to disseminate information about homosexuality and argue the case for gay rights. They insist its provisions, modelled on laws already operating in St Petersburg and nine other regions, provide a tool for populist politicians seeking to demonise an already vulnerable minority.

Whatever its true intention, the law clearly taps into a popular mood in Russia, where three-quarters of citizens said they believed homosexuality should “not be accepted by society” in a survey in May, and more than half thought gays and lesbians should be prosecuted and given therapy. This may help to explain why it was vigorously supported by president Vladimir Putin, who has also endorsed harsh laws against unauthorised demonstrations and foreign-funded NGOs since being returned to power in May 2012.

Putin has also approved family code amendments barring the adoption of Russian children in countries allowing same-sex marriage and indicated he may sign legislation enabling children to be removed from parents judged to be homosexuals. Speaking in late September, Putin insisted the rights of “sexual minorities” were “not restricted in any way” in Russia. But the law passed in June has been condemned by David Cameron, Angela Merkel and a host of public figures and celebrities. Since it also allows the arrest of tourists and foreign nationals suspected of being gay, or even “pro-gay”, fears have been raised about the fate of athletes and spectators at the Winter Olympics, which are to be staged at the Black Sea report of Sochi next February at a record cost of £33 billion. 

Although some athletes say they’ll wear gay rights badges, demonstrations are ruled out: in August, Putin signed a decree banning protests throughout the period of the Olympics. In September, the International Olympic Committee said it was confident Russian officials would respect the Olympic Charter, which rules out any discrimination. 

But criticism of Russia’s treatment of homosexuals is unlikely to die down and neither are questions surrounding the attitude of its Christian communities.

The pro-Orthodox Interfax news agency has carried numerous statements by Russian Church leaders backing the recent legislation and attacking gay rights campaigners. 

In June 2012, when Moscow’s city court upheld a 100-year ban on gay pride parades, it followed participation by the Union of Orthodox Brotherhoods in the violent break-up of attempted homosexual rallies. The Union’s coordinator, Yuri Ageshchev, told Interfax the actions were “a warning”. 

“We’re a peaceful people, but we will stand tall to defend our children adequately,” the Orthodox activist added. “One should not play with fire”. 

This August, the Moscow Patriarchate’s information director, Vladimir Legoyda, insisted ordinary Russians had “overwhemingly supported” the new law and rejected foreign criticism as “disrespect for the Russian people”. 

“The Church views homosexuality as a sin – which doesn’t mean hatred toward the sinner, but does rule out propaganda or support for such sexual relations,” Legoyda told Interfax. “Orthodox believers, members of other traditional religions in Russia and a lot of non-religious people are against propaganda of same-sex relations – and they are supported by many Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the West.” 

A month earlier, Patriarch Kirill also weighed into the debate, warning against “minority-imposed laws” in countries like Britain, where developments such as same-sex marriage were a “dangerous apocalyptic symptom” of moral collapse. Efforts were being made, Kirill noted, “to persuade us that freedom of choice is the only true value”.

“But no law, even the most perfected, can eradicate crime, corruption, evil, lying and confrontation,” the Patriarch cautioned in Kazan Cathedral in Red Square. “We must do our utmost to ensure sin is never approved by state laws in the wide reaches of Holy Rus. This would place our nation on the road to self-destruction.”

For some Russian Catholics the situation has become confusing. The Catholic Catechism describes homosexual acts as “grave depravity” against natural law. But it calls for “respect, compassion and sensitivity” for gays and lesbians themselves as equal members of the Church, and rejects “every sign of unjust discrimination”. This compassionate approach was underlined in September by the Pope himself, who said in an interview with Jesuit publications he did not want homosexuals to feel the Church had “always condemned them”, and would not pass judgment if “a homosexual person is of good will and in search of God”. 

In a open letter last November, Russia’s Catholic archbishop, Mgr Paolo Pezzi, expressed his “solidarity and identity of views” with Patriarch Kirill. In a television interview in May Kirill also predicted a Catholic-Orthodox consensus on “socially significant issues” such as homosexuality. Mgr Kovalevsky insists that the Catholic Church does not “condemn or exclude anyone for their sexual orientation”.

But with both the June law and the Olympic boycott campaign becoming “highly politicised”, the priest says, Russia’s Catholic Church won’t not be adopting an “official position”. Nor will it be running any pastoral ministry for homosexual Catholics. 

“What the Orthodox Church says about homosexuality is its own affair,” he says. “Our own position is fully transparent and was recently reaffirmed emotionally by the Pope. As a Church, we try to help every Catholic, and everyone wishing to become a Catholic, along the path of holiness, to be socialised and fulfil their calling in the world. But these are issues connected with the life of society in Russia.”

Confusion may also have set in among Catholics in neighbouring Ukraine, where a similar ban on “encouraging homosexuality” was passed at its first parliamentary reading in October 2012, despite condemnation by the United Nations, European Union and human rights organisations like Amnesty International. Although the law awaits final enactment, the anti-homosexual climate in Ukraine is also causing concern. 

In September, a free trade zone agreement with the European Union was approved by the government of premier Mykola Azarov, who promised Ukraine would meet the required “standards of democracy and human rights” by its planned signature in November. 

But EU officials have said that the law against homosexuality is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and say Ukraine must tighten its anti-discrimination rules as a precondition for the agreement. This has been rejected by Ukraine’s National Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, which told MPs in a letter that the precondition will “promote the advertising of homosexuality” and restrict “free speech for supporters of traditional families”. It’s also been dismissed by the head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych. He thinks the EU’s “pseudo-values” reflect “different conceptions of morality”. 

“We’re mistaken if we believe we have to opt for these diseases to attain European prosperity,”the 43-year-old archbishop told a Ukrainian newspaper in late September. “The EU looks like a teenager experiencing the restraints of morality who needs a Christian education. Europe wasn’t founded on same-sex couples, but on respect for human dignity, protection of rights and freedoms, honesty in politics and business. Europe stood on these foundations, but now seems to have forgotten them.”

Like Mgr Kovalevsky in Russia, the Greek Catholic spokesman, Fr Ihor Yatsiv, insists his church, which is Ukraine’s largest Catholic community, is following the Pope’s lead on homosexuality. But it hasn’t received requests for pastoral help from homosexuals, Fr Yatsiv says, and has no plans to offer them any facilities.
“Although we don’t create obstacles for these people when it comes to their relations with God, our church speaks in traditional language on such issues,” the priest told me. “There’s no tension between the standpoints of the Pope and our archbishop on this issue – they’re saying the same things, just in different words.” Not everyone would agree.

Meanwhile, similar attitudes to gays and lesbians are surfacing in other regional churches too. In Georgia, where two Orthodox priests face trial for violently disrupting a gay rights rally last May, the Council of Europe has urged the government to take steps to curb homophobia. It has urged the same in Moldavia, which has been tasked to tighten its anti-discrimination rules as a precondition for visa liberalisation with the EU. A Law on Equality was enacted in Moldavia in May 2012. But it’s been bitterly opposed by Moldavia’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, whose leader, Metropolitan Vladimir of Chisinau, threatened excommunication in June to politicians who back legislation on equal rights for homosexuals.

The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly has said that Russia’s new law violates Council norms and is to debate the issue shortly. Yet while President Putin and Russian officials go on defending the law, Patriarch Kirill also insists he’ll continue denouncing homosexuality, telling the Council’s secretary-general, Thorbjorn Jagland, at a recent meeting that the Russian Orthodox Church will never agree to “sin being justified by law”.

Meanwhile, violence against Russia’s gays and lesbians seems like to continue. Another scratchy video shows a terrified dark-haired Uzbek man being interrogated his bare apartment by club-wielding thugs. A few frames later, the man is shown stripped and doused in paint and urine, while his persecutors grin back at the camera, unconcerned that their faces are easily recognisable. Human rights groups report that the man, identified as a waiter, later died of his injuries. They say groups like “Occupy Pedofilyaj” have been encouraged by the public intolerance fostered by Russian politicians and legislators. 

It will be a tragedy if today’s climate of fear and intolerance appears to be encouraged by Russia’s Christians.  

This article first appeared in print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 18/10/13