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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Orthodox Growth Spurs Split in Priesthood Ranks

The ancient bells of the Russian Orthodox Church are pealing again. Choirs singing the sonorous chants of times gone by are calling the faithful back to God.

But, as believers flock back to the religion they shunned for 70 Soviet years, the priests who baptize them are quarrelling fiercely and the church is threatened with schism.

"Only our enemies in the church have access to the Patriarch," complained Father Georgy Kochetkov, a priest at the heart of the battle for the faith. "They surround him and they use their position to attack us without compunction."

Churchmen can scarcely build enough churches fast enough to cope with the demand for a faith to fill the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of communism. A thousand new religious communities have been formed in the past two years.

But the priesthood is being torn between democrats, who want to make the faith more modern and accessible, and nationalists who want to preserve its ancient, uniquely Russian, glories.

Splits in the Orthodox hierarchy reflect those in Russia's turbulent political world. The church's national-patriotic wing shares many of the views of the political right including the belief that Jews and freemasons are plotting to destroy Russia.

The deeply conservative Orthodox Church has always resisted change. It passed untouched through the centuries of Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation which traumatized but then rejuvenated other European churches.

Opportunities for debate and reform were further limited during the Soviet period, when the small Orthodox establishment which survived under communism stifled internal dissent so as to present a united front to a hostile outside world.

But, even in today's liberal climate, Kochetkov says the church is refusing change. "Night-watchman's Orthodoxy" protects it from a threat of persecution which now no longer exists.

Kochetkov's insistence on preaching in modern Russian -- rather than half-understood Old Church Slavonic -- has got him into trouble. He also organizes discussion groups outside the church, a practice frowned upon by Orthodox leaders who say it smacks of Protestantism.

As a punishment for these transgressions, he was thrown out of his Sreteniye church in central Moscow early this year.

Kochetkov warned that right-wingers were delivering the religious into the arms of political extremists, communists and jackboot nationalists widely known as the "red-brown plague."

"It's important to open churches and religious academies and monasteries. But what's more important is what will be inside them: what kind of service, how to teach, what should the image of the Orthodox believer be? Christians or, excuse me, these nationalists, these half-fascists?"