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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Priests Gain More Access to Prisoners

The Russian Orthodox Church has come to the help of the police, putting its moral authority behind law enforcement in an agreement with the Interior Ministry.

"The society is losing moral sensitivity and that can be the beginning of a new national tragedy," the Moscow Patriarch Alexy II and Interior Minister Viktor Yerin said in a joint statement.

The agreement between the church and the ministry provides for priests to have regular access to prisons and to police and interior troops' units.

Father Viktor Petlyuchenko, co-chairman of the joint working group, said the police unexpectedly agreed to allow Russian Orthodox priests to communicate with defendants awaiting trial whose contacts with the outside world are typically minimized for the purposes of investigation.

"For us any faith is good as long as it calls on people to refrain from committing crimes," said Valery Irigov, a spokesman for the penitentiary system of the Interior Ministry. "No major religion recommends crime."

Irigov said that discipline improves as a rule among prisoners communicating with priests. "Administrative efforts are not sufficient to keep prisoners calm," he said.

The daily newspaper Segodnya reported Friday that a group of inmates at the Butyrki remand prison in Moscow had gone on hunger strike over the conditions in which they are kept. The strike ended Monday. The prison is suffering from major overcrowding and shortage of personnel.

While it is necessary to prevent defendants from passing information out of detention, Irigov said the police tend to "rely on priests to keep secrets."

Father Gleb Kolyada, a priest who had been allowed to make occasional visits to Butyrki, said recently that some inmates had confessed more serious crimes to him than those they were being prosecuted for. As a priest, he said, he would never relay them to the investigation.

Petlyuchenko said the church will also offer moral instruction to Interior Ministry troops as well as "psychiatric rehabilitation" to police officers depressed by dealing with crime.

Mikhail Doronin, a press spokesman for the ministry, said the ministry welcomes representatives of other religions and denominations to perform similar services in the penitentiary system.