Recently a petition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been dilligently making the rounds, and it was asked of a friend of mine why NFTU wasn’t reporting on it, even though it was making a dent in some parts of the Russian media, reportage on the other side being presented as the face of government persecution in Russia.
Without getting into any personal reasons concerning why I wouldn’t sign or defend signing this petition or publicizing it on principle (as many of these good folks mistakenly think is motivating my inaction) as the editor of NFTU, I’ve seen about 20 of these open letters in the past four years. I am fully convinced they really do nothing to help the party in question unless you can get 10,000 supporters or more in a relatively short period of time. Admittedly though we do put up open letters most of the time. So why not this time?
In answer to those who claim NFTU is being “biased”, let’s look at the facts.
First, the case is being presented as “persecution against the ROAC”, as the petition states. Never mind that this is already dishonest, since Gregory Lourie and co. were excommunicated from the ROAC years ago, back when he was saying he’d “tear apart the ROAC”. Never mind Lourie found some suspended and deposed clergy to help make him a soi-disant “Bishop”. Never mind the Metropolitan and most of the ROAC has wanted nothing to do with him for years. But I’ll come back to this in a minute, as it seems like a minor quibble at the outset.
Instead, let’s take a few moments to examine the general aspects of the case.
Basically the Russian courts are trying someone (already well-known in the Russian media as “the suicide priest”, known for running a controversial center where suicidal people, well, committed suicide there) for running a fraud operation. The charge is running fraudulent funerals “because they weren’t part of the MP”.
Well, that’s only half the story. The other half of the story, see, is that the location of the Church had been controversial for a while because it’s located across the street from a public hospital (and the public, nominally is still under the MP). It had advertised funeral rates in the hospital across the street. Let’s look logically here. People are dying– after all, the Church is near a hospital. You need to get the funeral and immediate services to the body.
The charge of fraud is based upon the premise that locals thought that the St Elizabeth Church was a MP institution, a natural thought considering that (a) most of the people were MP and (b) the MP is usually associated with institutions such as hospitals, that the people were offered “fake” (read “not MP”) funeral services. Your average layperson, looking at the chaplaincy stuff and noticing the Church was across the street in a “state-Church” country, would assume that the chapel was affiliated with the hospital and vice versa.
Now, as we know most True Orthodox Churches won’t pull out the stops to do funerals, memorials, et cetera for those outside their jurisdiction. Put simply, considering prudent courses of action, this case shouldn’t have occurred to begin with, since proper procedure would never have allowed it to. Was that the case here? I am not going to speak about personal experience, what I know or don’t, or what I’ve heard or didn’t. I’d rather say what is proper– I don’t know; but the whole point is that there is a real possibility of a case here.
And what I will say is– unlike the wholesale confiscation of a dozen Churches that occurred in Suzdal this past year– the Russian prosecutor may actually have a case against Lourie. What if MP people were given services by mistake and thought the place was an MP Church? What if it occurred on purpose? (Funerals, by the way, for those who know, aren’t cheap.) Then what?
In fact, Lourie seems to admit as much in an interview with Radio Liberty, quoted on their own defenders’ website:
Indeed, in Petersburg there is this established practice of performing funeral services in morgues. But in that morgue near our church, as a rule, funeral services were performed by a priest from Moscow Patriarchate. And only in rare cases, only occasionally, they were performed by our priest. But contrary to what “E” Department stated, we never claimed to be priests from Moscow Patriarchate. What is true is that there is a sign on the wall that funeral services in this morgue started with a blessing of Metropolitan John. It hangs there, ever since that blessing was given. But that services in the morgue are performed specifically by Moscow Patriarchate priests, or that the morgue chapel belongs to Moscow Patriarchate – none of that is true, and it can’t possibly be true, because that chapel is, quite literally, a property of the morgue. So when people come, and they want an Orthodox funeral service for their relative, they typically mean an Orthodox service, not a Moscow Patriarchate presence. Putting a question like that is substituting the question of Orthodoxy with a question of being under the jurisdiction of Moscow Patriarchate.
If I were in the Russian prosecutor’s office– I hate to say this– but I’d probably use this interview as proof of motive for fraud.
Now let’s go back to the beginning. Lourie and company are presenting themselves as the “ROAC”, which, currently, is desperately attempting to legally defend itself in the face of actual incursions against their PROPERTY in Suzdal. How well would a conviction of fraud on Lourie’s part look right up there next to Metropolitan Valentine’s defense? It wouldn’t look good in the court of public opinion for sure. This, in the opinion of this editor, is nothing more than an attempt to anchor the Metropolitan onto Lourie’s sinking ship. Perhaps he and his followers are doing it in the hopes the Metropolitan would defend his wayward son. Perhaps he and his followers are doing it to make Lourie look just as persecuted as Metropolitan Valentine. Perhaps, if (dare I say it) Lourie is guilty and his conviction is a foregone conclusion, it was just done out of revenge.
There are too many holes in this story for me to support Monk Gregory Lourie or say he’s guilty of something either way, and so I say in this case to all our True Orthodox readers: watch the court. Watch the evidence. Presented with the evidence, ROAC was really robbed in Suzdal, which it’s why it’s controversial still both inside and outside Russia. Will the St Elizabeth’s fraud case– already being misrepresented to a degree by its own defenders— give the same result?
Until we are sure it does, I’m just not ready to cry out “persecution” just yet, and certainly am not ready to sign a petition stating as much.
Deacon Joseph Suaiden, General Editor, NFTU