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Human Rights Champions Versus the Church

RIA Novosti

The Moscow regional court is to announce its decision Monday on the case that has split Russian intellectuals into two opposing camps. Many call it the lawsuit of the century. According to the first camp, the decision of the court will determine whether Russia will remain a secular state or will slip into clerical obscurantism. The other camp believes that no intellectual has the right to offend believers with impunity.

These heated debates came in anticipation of the court ruling on the suit against the organizers of a scandalous exhibition, "Beware Religion!", held in Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Center in January 2003. A triptych depicting the Crucifixion on a cross, a star and a swastika in succession was the least outrageous exhibit. The first thing the visitors saw was the image of the Savior on a Coca Cola poster advertisement. The guests could put their faces in a hole cut out in a huge life-size icon.

According to Yuri Samodurov, the director of the Sakharov Center and the main figure of the three people on trial, however shocking these pictures might be, they are not meant to offend believers. He said the name of the exhibition conveys its dubious meaning. On the one hand, it calls for respecting faith and believers. On the other, it warns against any religious fundamentalism, be it Orthodox or Islamic, against merging religion and the state, and plunging into clerical obscurantism.

It is religious fundamentalism that the author of the abovementioned triptych is against, argues Samodurov.

Many believe that Samodurov's arguments are quite timely, considering the growing role of religion in today's Russia. After 70 years of persecution when churches were blown up or turned into stables, Orthodoxy in Russia is going through a renaissance period. The clergy are indispensable participants in important national events, and politicians of all ranks quite often attend church services. Moreover, we are now experiencing ideological gap and moral erosion after the sharp change of regime in Russia, and the Church is gradually becoming the national keeper of family values and moral principles, and, at last, a force bringing the nation together.

It would only be for the better, if the Church's influence did not approach the dangerous line for a secular state, many Samodurov's followers believe.

This threat is the subject of the declaration "For Religious Freedom" that influential human rights organizations adopted recently in reply to the Samodurov case. Human rights advocates have already branded the lawsuit as "the monkey trial," after the prosecution of the Darwinists in Britain in the 19th century. Defending the secularity of the country, the authors of the declaration note that religion is "a private matter" and condemn the authorities' plans to introduce optional school classes on God's law and even demand exclusion of the word "God" from the new national anthem.

It is clear why Russian human rights activists were hurt so much. The current developments must be bringing back memories of the past for them. Persecution of artistic people who dared challenge the dominating ideology was typical for Communist times. Suffice it to recall the days of Nikita Khrushchev when the exhibition of avant-garde artists in Moscow was heavily attacked, and Boris Pasternak came under fire for publishing his "anti-Soviet" novel, "Doctor Zhivago," abroad. Paradoxically, in the case of the "Beware Religion!" exhibition, artistic expression is the target of the Church, the enemy of Communism. Many Russian intellectuals see it as an alarming sign of the growing power and influence of Orthodoxy in a secular state, which Russia is according to its Constitution.

On the other hand, the artistic imagination cannot take its master beyond the line where the rights of other people, including believers, are violated. Freedom encroaching on the freedom of others is no longer a freedom. The Moscow court considering the claim against the "Beware Religion!" exhibition is faced with a complex task that tends to come up increasingly more often. The court will have to strike a balance between the freedom of expression and religious freedom.

Apparently, the state is inclined to support the Church. The state prosecutor Ц a young woman wearing a mini-skirt, high-heeled boots and a fashionable rucksack Ц a new image of Russian justice Ц has asked the court to condemn the defendants for "fanning up national and religious hostility". Her draft of the verdict is strikingly severe. She wants Samodurov to be sentenced to three years in prison, and Lyudmila Vasilovskaya of the Sakharov Center and artist Anna Mikhalchuk, to two years. In addition, the prosecutor recommended that all the paintings represented at the dubious exhibition be destroyed after the trial, which sounds intimidating and very familiar.

Burning the evidence is a novel solution, exclaim many famous Russian human rights champions. Moreover, Samodurov, if found guilty, will have to resign as the director in the Sakharov Center. However, his candidacy for this position was blessed by Yelena Bonner, Sakharov's widow, who is also a prominent figure in the Russian human rights movement.

When asked about the trial, Bonner quotes her husband: "I see religious freedom as part of the freedom of convictions. If I lived in a clerical state, I would be possibly defending atheism and other believers and heretics persecuted [by the Church]."

Russia's split intellectual elite is holding its breath in anticipation of the court ruling, due on March 28. The verdict may become an important indicator of public sentiments reigning today in Russia, the former home of atheism.

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