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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holy Synod Should Not Menace Press

Last Friday, the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church, issued a statement condemning articles in two newspapers, Moskovsky Komsomolets and Rus Pravoslavnaya, the religion supplement to Sovietskaya Rossiya. The bishops condemned the two papers for spreading "slander" and "ungrounded accusations of apostasy and heresy."

It suggested that the actions of the people who produced the articles deserved unspecified ecclesiastical sanctions, although none was imposed.

The statement didn't mention names or cite particular articles, but made clear it was referring to stories by Sergei Bychkov of Moskovsky Komsomolets, about the alleged multimillion-dollar economic activities of a prominent metropolitan, and by Rus Pravoslavnaya's Konstantin Dushenov, a conservative who has criticized ecumenical contact with the West.

While the church is more than entitled to respond to its critics, the hint about ecclesiastical punishment of the journalists, both of whom are Orthodox Christians, was regrettable. That's a line the church should not approach, even in dealing with biased news media.

It's perfectly permissible, even desirable, for the church leadership to speak out. Russia needs more dialogue between church and secular society. And the bishops in general chose moderate language -- they "expressed regret" about the articles, rather than using overheated rhetoric.

But it's disturbing that they added that the journalists' actions "deserved canonic sanctions." Sanctions theoretically could range from temporarily barring them from communion to excommunication.

The effect on anyone who values membership in the church community could be one of intimidation -- a weapon that should remain out of bounds, even in a full and vigorous debate.

Bychkov of Moskovsky Komsomolets has written about allegations of corruption in the church. And Dushenov, the Rus Pravoslavnaya writer, is merely a forceful opponent of ecumenism. This is not an unusual point of view in today's Russian Orthodox Church; it is held by a number of bishops and priests. Dushenov, who appears to be about as Orthodox as you can get, shouldn't be singled out because he writes for a newspaper.

A certain amount of irritation seems built into church-media relations. Clergy, with their eye on eternity, and journalists, with their skeptical and crusading outlook, sometimes rub each other the wrong way.

But the church will only confirm the stereotype that it is regressive and undemocratic if it tries to expel anyone who tries to publicly discuss its policies.