Uzbekistan: Russian Orthodox Christians Skip Preparation For Baptism

This article has a surprise ending, and that is why we are labelling it under “ecumenism”. NFTU

TASHKENT (UCAN) — Every day, people line up outside the baptistery of Holy Assumption Church in Tashkent while waiting to be baptized, but hardly any show up beforehand for catechism classes.

The church’s priests are busy, so catechist Michael Belov offers “optional” catechism classes twice a week. The seminary graduate told UCA News most people seek baptism due to their ethnicity, “because they are Russians,” but they seldom appear in church thereafter, except at Christmas and Easter.

Compared to the Soviet communist era, Tashkent’s main Russian Orthodox church today seems to be enjoying a revival, with about 100 people being baptized every week. Most are ethnic Russians, though there are also Tatars, Koreans, Armenians and a few Uzbeks.

Belov questions their motivation. Full churches on important religious holidays does not testify to the people’s faith, he insists, because they often go to church just “for fun” on such occasions.

Father Sergei Nikolaev, a senior priest at the church, explained to UCA News, “Optional catechism is the result of the agnostic and communist legacy from which the Church is still suffering.” He mentioned paganism when speaking about people who seek baptism as a tradition or for fear of sickness or misfortune. “People should be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Nevertheless, he continued, church for many Russians still is where one goes merely to honor tradition. Many people nowadays go to church to baptize infants or for services for the dead. Money for such services, plus the US$10 fee charged for each baptism, brings income into the church.

Massgoers seeking intervention buy and light candles in front of images of saints. Only a handful of them remain in the church for the whole liturgy.

“People buy candles but don’t ask for books,” he remarked, referring to the church bookshop he runs. Besides religious literature, it also offers DVDs such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Belov will soon leave all that behind when he goes to Moscow for higher religious schooling.

Father Nektariy, another Orthodox priest, told UCA News he thinks catechism should be compulsory. “Today, we are glad if three out of 20 baptized later come to Mass,” he said.

This is why people are taught about Christianity during the baptism ceremony itself, since most are ignorant about the faith they are about to embrace.

At a baptism ceremony on Sept. 14, Father Alexander gave the people briefly introduced their faith in modern Russian, though the one-hour ceremony was conducted in old Russian. The liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church still uses the old language, but few if any understand it.

“I want you to know at least something about Orthodoxy,” Father Alexander told the new converts as he guided them through the process since they seemed unsure what to do. He once had to cancel the baptism of a young man who had been baptized before. “People told me I should do it again,” he explained.

During the ceremony, the priest dips the new converts in the pool, then baptizes and confirms them. Both sacraments are administered together.

Some people seem uncertain about why they seek baptism. Lada, an Armenian woman in her 40s who says she goes to church and prays in her own way, told UCA News she asked to be baptized because she wants her friend, who is Russian, to be her godfather.

Another woman, Natalia Motovilova, was asked why she decided to have her seven-year-old son baptized. Her only response was that she “needed to.”

Compared to the local Russian Orthodox church, the Catholic Sacred Heart parish in Tashkent has only about 15 baptisms a year. “When people understand we require long preparation, they leave,” Father Lucjan Szymanski, the pastor, told UCA News. Most people, he said, “want to have it all, and at once.”

The Polish Conventual Franciscan thinks an abbreviated catechism course means people will leave the Church in the future. “People need time to make a deliberate choice that they will not change later,” he said. Accordingly, catechism in his parish lasts at least two years before one may be baptized.

Father Szymanski finds the Russian Orthodox Church situation like that of the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). “But I am sure our Orthodox brothers will work it out, sooner or later,” he said.