Russian Orthodox Church facing ‘aggressive atheism’, says Patriarch

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has called on members of the Church to remain firm in their belief in God in the face of “aggressive atheism” and “resurgent paganism”.

Kirill made the call during celebrations on Tuesday to mark Russia’s conversion to Christianity in 988, after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared July 28 a national holiday. It marks the introduction of Orthodox Christianity as the state religion in ancient Rus at the end of the tenth century, when Vladimir the Great was baptised and later converted his family and people.

Religious ceremonies and mass baptisms in rivers were held across Russia as well as the Ukraine, where Kirill is currently on a state visit.

Preaching in Kiev's historic Pecherska Lavra monastery, Kirill was quoted by Reuters a saying: "Facing aggressive atheism and resurgent paganism we remain firm in our belief in God".

He later told reporters, "Abandoning the historical significance of the baptism of Rus means discarding the supporting pillar of our entire civilisation.”

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the conversion of Russia to Christianity was of great significance and a “historical choice”.

President Medvedev decreed the official holiday on June 1 amid strong criticism from rights groups and activists who argue that it goes against Russia’s secular constitution. Muslims, who make up one-seventh of the Russian population, complained that the holiday excluded them.

Konstantin Bendas, a senior official with the Russian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, said the national holiday created tensions between the Orthodox Church and other faiths, according to the St Petersburg Times.

Bendas said Protestants would hold their own holiday on October 31, the day that in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, starting the Reformation.

A senior Orthodox official said the Church respected other faiths but that their holidays should not be recognised nationally.

“Russia is an Orthodox state, and we should not be ashamed of declaring it,” said Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s department for church and society affairs.

More than 60 per cent of Russians describe themselves as Orthodox Christians, while Muslims make up more than 10 per cent of the population.