Russian government brands 113-year-old sermon as 'extremist'

Russian officials from the Meshchansky District Court in Moscow recently confirmed that text of a sermon preached in 1900 by Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky is to be labelled as "extremist".

This means that its distribution is banned all across Russia and ownership of it can now result in criminal prosecution, according to a report by Forum 18 news agency.

Archbishop Sheptytsky is currently a candidate for Sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church because of his work in rescuing Jews from the Nazis.

He provided them with false identification papers as well as sheltering them in his home and Greek Catholic monasteries.

It was during this period of his life he also wrote a pastoral letter entitled "Thou shalt not kill" to protest the atrocities of the Holocaust.

The sermon in question, which is entitled "The True Faith" ("Pravdiva Vira" in its original language) was one of 16 Ukrainian language texts initially deemed "extreme" by the Meshchansky District Court back in March this year.

The other 15 texts were not written by Sheptytsky. They are largely secular Ukrainian nationalist works, with titles including "The Ukrainian National Idea" and "Ukrainian Liberation Concept".

The text is from a sermon that Sheptysky gave to Greek Catholics in the Bukovina region, which is now partly in western Ukraine.

In it, he speaks against the idea that the Church should be something confined to one country.

"Christ's Church has to be a transnational institution," he says, and anyone wishing to turn it "into a number of purely national institutions is forgetting about the Church's divine foundation and not understanding it in a Christian way".

He talks about his nations religious past, saying, "We Ukrainians are filled with love for the Catholic Church, we always saw her as our own mother," and the importance of the Pope "Christ gave supreme authority to Peter and all his heirs… In other words, the Pope of Rome is recognised as the visible head of the Church".

There is no mention of other beliefs or any suggestion that any other religion might somehow be lesser. He goes as far as to suggest that people unfamiliar with the Catholic faith and "who live in another faith, observing all its prescriptions, purely and sincerely convinced that this other faith is true, may also be saved by the love of Jesus Christ". He also states that the atheist "who knows the true faith but does not hold to it will not be saved".

However, at no point does he call for action against atheists, violent or otherwise.

Forum 18, the religious freedom activist and journalism group that investigated the decision to criminalise this text, has been unable to determine the exact reasoning behind the Russian court's decision.

A spokesperson for the Meshchansky Interdistrict Public Prosecutor was contacted, but when questions were asked about the "True Faith" sermon, she claimed she could not hear and the phone line was cut.

Later phone calls from Forum 18 to her office went unanswered. What is clear however is that the judge involved in the hearings, Judge Maria Kudryavtseva, heard 18 civil cases on the afternoon of the day of the judgement. Records indicate she only devoted 10 minutes to each case, and she found in the state's favour in all but one case, where the plaintiff did not attend. Another official who was contacted said: "The text of those rulings – of that category of case – may not be published".

Ownership of this text could now result in a jail sentence of three years, and a fine of 300,000 Rubles (around £5,500 GBP).