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Russia's Orthodox church regains lost ground

As its influence grows, the church seeks to retake Bolshevik-seized property. More than 6,000 sites have been returned, but hundreds more are in dispute.

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Ryazan's dazzling kremlin, the ancient town fortress considered a gem of Russian architecture, seems like an unlikely venue for a bitter social conflict.

But for the past three years a subterranean battle has raged here over the 26-hectare complex seized by the Bolsheviks last century. The increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church is pressuring political leaders in Moscow to return the property to church stewardship, and public passions are running high.

"Society is split over this issue," says Sergei Isakov, a deputy of the regional legislature. "We need more time to listen to the people about this."

It's a struggle taking place across Russia. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, about 6,000 sites nationalized by the communists have been returned to the church, but hundreds more remain under dispute. Critics say the church's appetite exceeds its ability to restore old buildings, or fill them with worshipers, and its aims are increasingly politicized.

"Lately the church's ambitions have grown, and clericalism is creeping into state institutions and public organizations," says Anatoly Pchelintsev, editor of Religion and Law, a journal published by the independent Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow. "We have elections coming, and the state finds it convenient to actively court the Church's embrace and seek its support."

Church's campaign for influence

The Orthodox Church has been – and remains – closely linked to the Russian state. Even before the Bolsheviks nationalized all its property and took full control over the priesthood, the church acted as the main ideological support for Russian czars. And since the fall of communism, Russian leaders have sometimes turned to the church, which has baptized some 60 percent of Russians, to boost their legitimacy.

"The Russian state is undergoing a crisis of values," says Alexander Dugin, who heads the International Eurasian Movement, a nationalist group that favours stronger church influence. "Soviet ideas have been destroyed, while the democratic values of the West have been completely discredited in post-Soviet Russia. The only real source of [spiritual] support for the new Russian state is the Orthodox Church."

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