The Church Is Back In Business...

Father Mark stood quietly as Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov congratulated Alexander P. Smolensky, the powerful president of Stolichny Savings Bank, on the opening of the bank's luxurious new branch in the center of Moscow. But when the speeches were over, the tall, curly-haired priest sprang into action. Flanked by three choir members and a denim-clad acolyte holding an ornate silver chalice, Father Mark promenaded across the green marble floor, sprinkling holy water on each of the 25 tellers.

All across Russia, religion is making a comeback. Citizens of the nation that made atheism the state dogma for over 70 years are reveling in their freedom to attend the church, synagogue, or mosque of their choice.

But to the overwhelming majority of Russians, there is only one religion: the Russian Orthodox Church. The church will never regain the political power it wielded with the czars before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Still, Father Mark's appearance at the Stolichny opening is a sign that the church is forging close ties to big business and City Hall, creating a new post-communist Russian trinity.

The church has a simple motivation for joining this unholy alliance: money. The government has returned thousands of churches and cathedrals to the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. But it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate the buildings and replace icons and holy objects stolen by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. The church brings in some money from Sunday donations and new commercial ventures, such as a mineral-water company that sells nationwide and a drugstore in Moscow. But to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars it needs, the church must rely on the largesse of Russia's new capitalists.

Banks such as Stolichny, Most Bank, and Inkombank have willingly stepped up to the plate. In mid-August, Smolensky presented Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Alexy II with 50 kilograms of gold, worth about $600,000, to gild the onion domes of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. In return, the patriarchate transferred its accounts to Stolichny. Says Smolensky: "This is the beginning of the rebirth of spirituality and Orthodoxy in Russia."

The $200 million restoration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is the most visible symbol of the new relationship of the church, City Hall, and business. Reconstruction of the cathedral, which was razed by Stalin in 1931, began last year and is a pet project of Mayor Luzhkov. Stalin wanted to build a huge government building on the site, topped by a statue of Lenin, that would be taller than the Empire State Building. But the soggy soil couldn't support the building's weight, and an outdoor swimming pool was built instead. Luzhkov closed the pool in 1994 and began seeking donations to rebuild the cathedral. Business didn't disappoint him. "Ninety percent of the $29 million raised so far has come from businesspeople," says Sergei Semenyenko, deputy director of the cathedral's reconstruction fund. Regular folks have contributed, as well, but most of them don't have much to give.

Orthodox leaders claim they are happy to stay out of politics, as required by law. But drawing a line between church and state is complicated in a country where the two were entwined for almost 1,000 years. No one bats an eye when the Patriarch presides over public ceremonies. "The separation of church and state doesn't mean that the church feels separate from Russia's cultural or moral life," says Father Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Patriarch's external affairs department.

Indeed, the church has thrown its weight around when it feels threatened. Fearful that Russia's thirst for spirituality will galvanize other religions, some Orthodox priests and nationalist politicians have pushed laws that would restrict proselytizing. So far, none have passed. The Orthodox leaders want to keep in check Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries as well as cults such as Japan's terrorist Aum Shinri Kyo, which has 30,000 members in Russia, compared with 10,000 in Japan. Meanwhile, the Patriarch has condemned the efforts of Muslim leaders to create an Islamic political movement in Russia. So Russians are still defining what they mean by "freedom of religion."

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