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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Patriarch Criticizes Rich Priests

In an unusually frank account of Russian church life, Patriarch Alexy II scolded priests this week for "assuming the lifestyle of New Russians" by driving expensive cars and sporting mobile telephones in front of impoverished parishioners.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who spoke Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Moscow Diocese, stressed the need for more social outreach, something that has remained at the bottom of most parishes' list of priorities.

The full text of the patriarch's annual report, which usually names transgressors and includes a great deal of criticism, has traditionally been a guarded internal document. But even the excerpts of the text released by the Moscow Patriarchate were unusually strong. In most documents made public in the past the Church has painted a far rosier picture.

In another departure from past practices, Alexy II called for greater openness and transparency in Church affairs in the face of what he called an anti-Church press.

The patriarch attributed the problems in the Church in part to the "spirit of the time" and the domination of "ethically negative values" in society such as greed, lies and personal ambitions.

Part of the clergy, he said, has attempted to imitate the lifestyle of New Russians, which generates resentment on the part of people struggling to make ends meet.

"One has to realize that a mass transformation of consciousness is taking place among simple impoverished people," his report said. "They see that they are not needed by anybody: Neither the state nor the society is taking care of them, and now the Church too shows that the rich and not the poor are closer to her."

The annual meeting, at which deans of churches and heads of parish councils are present, is a major event in the life of each diocese, but Moscow's meeting is particularly important because of the patriarch's report. In his report, the patriarch, who also is the capital's bishop, outlines the main policies of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy.

The call for greater openness marked a noticeable change in policy.

"We should speak sincerely and truthfully about all problems that exist today in our church life without waiting for these issues to be raised and interpreted by others, including our ill-wishers," the patriarch said.

The Church was involved in several high-profile conflicts this year that drew extensive critical coverage in the media. The Patriarchate also has faced rumors that Alexy II's health was in decline and that he was increasingly isolated by his entourage.

In one of the well-publicized conflicts, a reformist Moscow community was virtually disbanded and kicked out of its church, while its popular leader, Priest Georgy Kochetkov, was suspended by the patriarch.

In Yekaterinburg, a conservative bishop was accused of burning books by several prominent Orthodox theologians, though he denied the allegations.

Also in Moscow, Hegumen Martiri Bagin, who led a parish sponsored by Inkombank, was removed for disobedience and unsanctioned appropriation of real estate. But due to the secretive manner on the part of the Patriarchate, the removal was portrayed by Bagin's supporters as a clamp down on dissent.

In Wednesday's report, the patriarch said the need for money has caused some parishes to have "business contacts with representatives of private companies, banks and the shadow economy, who are interested in legalizing their business through the Church. Should one say how much this does not correspond with Christian ethics?"

He also said some clergymen have attempted to use their relations with big business and "quasi-political circles" to exert pressure on him, but were unsuccessful.

However, the patriarch's report continued the Church's attack on the liberal religious radio station Sofia, which has been accused of undermining the Church by ungrounded criticism of the hierarchy and propagation of Western views.

Alexy II scolded priests for not doing more to help Russians in need.

"Every year I call on deans and heads of parish councils with the request to activate charity activities at the parish level, but unfortunately my words are not heard by everybody," the patriarch's report said.

He addressed criticism that the Church has found money for rebuilding and restoring churches but not for helping the poor.

"Modern life demands new approaches," the patriarch's report said. "Although with difficulty we have found resources to restore churches and gild iconostases, now we need to find them [resources] for other no less important types of church activities."

Alexy II urged parishes to cooperate in funding social projects. "What one parish cannot do, two or three will be able to."

He stressed the importance of increasing the clergy's educational and personal spiritual level. He pointed to the danger of priests abusing their power of confessor by demanding total obedience from their flock, turning people into "robots" and church communities into "sects."

The report also included statistical data on the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims jurisdiction over all of the former Soviet Union except for Georgia and owns property in Europe, Northern America and Israel.

The Church has 151 active bishops in 127 dioceses. About 19,700 clergymen serve in more than 19,000 parishes. Of 478 monasteries and convents, 299 are on the territory of the Russian Federation.

In Moscow, the Church has title to 428 churches and 39 chapels, with 539 priests and 206 deacons, which is 72 more clergymen than in 1997.