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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Christian Faith Adds To Puzzle

It was Orthodox Christmas Eve, and Vladimir Putin went straight to the essence of the Christian understanding of the holiday.

"Why did Christ come into the world?" he said, apparently speaking without prepared text or a TelePrompTer. "To liberate people from sickness, troubles, from death. In its essence, Christmas is a holiday of hope."

Putin's Jan. 6 remarks were vastly different from the conventional holiday pronouncements by politicians, who usually confine themselves to praising the role of the Orthodox Church in Russian history and in promoting social harmony. But Putin's remarks could have come straight from a sermon.

As the world tries to understand the often-inscrutable acting president, attempting to figure out what exactly he did as a KGB officer in Germany and an aide to the mayor of St. Petersburg, at least one of his personal characteristics is becoming clear: He is an active Orthodox Christian with a more than passable knowledge of the faith.

But the prospect of having, for the first time since the tsarist era, a practicing member of the country's predominant church as Russia's vastly powerful president has met with a mixed response.

Does it mean that Putin as a leader will be bound by high moral standards? Or does it mean that Orthodoxy will become Russia's official ideology, and that non-Orthodox Russians will be discriminated against?

The first bell rang Dec. 31, the day he became acting president. News reports about the transfer of power in the Kremlin from President Boris Yeltsin to Prime Minister Putin, in the presence of Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, contained an unusual word, "blessing" - not exactly part of Russian political vocabulary.

Putin specifically asked for Alexy's blessing for the three-month transitional period and received it, news agencies and television reported.

Many of Russia's leaders are baptized Christians, but whenever they spoke off the cuff on church matters, their statements were full of terminological mistakes and theological absurdities. Yeltsin enjoyed good relations with the church, but was not publicly pious.

A special term even arose for top politicians, nearly all of whom came from the ranks of the Communist Party, who hold candles twice a year on Easter and Christmas at televised patriarchal services. They are called podsvechniki, or candlesticks.

But as Putin made the sign of the cross and listened attentively during the televised Christmas service in the newly opened Christ the Savior Cathedral, he did not look like a typical podsvechnik.

Newsweek reported last week that Putin became religious three years ago, after rescuing his two daughters, now ages 13 and 14, from a fire at a dacha near St. Petersburg. Journalist Yevgenia Albats, who co-authored Newsweek's profile of Putin, said in a telephone interview she received the information from "a very close friend of Putin's."

It could not immediately be learned, however, when and where he was baptized.

At the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity on the Sparrow Hills, where Putin stopped by for half an hour on Christmas Eve, people could easily tell he was not a podsvechnik.

"You can instantly tell if a person is a believer or not," Priest Alexander Antipov, who serves at the church, said in an interview Tuesday. "Putin is a believer."

"He was the first politician who asked for the Holy Patriarch's blessing," he said. "If any cause begins with prayer, it is already good. It means that the person has a moral basis in life. Let's hope!"

A prominent Orthodox priest in Moscow who asked not to be identified said he had talked with Putin about matters of faith before he became prime minister, and confirmed that he is a "believing Orthodox man."

Priest Maxim Kozlov, dean of Moscow State University's St. Tatyana Chapel, said the fact that Putin is a believer does not necessarily say much about him as a politician. "But it gives us hope that a person, who understands himself as an Orthodox Christian, would refuse to do certain things in politics," Kozlov said. "Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about others. There, money rules everything."

The problem for Putin's image advisers, however, is that what makes Orthodox Christians optimistic may alarm those who are not Orthodox.

Putin's frequent appearances together with the patriarch - be it at the Kremlin's New Year's reception or at the Christmas service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral - are seen as a sign that the close relations between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church, which began under Yeltsin, will only deepen under Putin, to the detriment of other beliefs.

The Izvestia newspaper came out last Saturday with a banner headline "It is Ordered to Believe." Next to a picture of Putin during the Christmas church service, there was an article by Valery Kichin, who described himself as an atheist. Kichin wrote that he felt threatened by the country's leaders officially embracing the church.

"Atheists are the majority in our country, but atheism is thrown off the books, as if it is outlawed, and an atheist must feel alien," Kichin wrote. "So does a Moslem, my Protestant neighbor, my Catholic friend and people in a Synagogue. ... Now they too have become a sort of second-class people."

Anatoly Pchelintsev, a human rights lawyer and a practicing Baptist, said in an interview this week that although he is inclined to trust a religious person more than a nonreligious one, Putin's public demonstration of his closeness to the Orthodox Church was noticed with alarm by many of the non-Orthodox people whom he spoke with.

"If he is a religious man, it means that he has a conscience, and it's good," Pchelintsev said. "But we are a multinational, multi-religious nation, and when he constantly appears in public with the patriarch, it generates a contrary reaction on the part of many. Do we have a secular state or what? What is going to happen tomorrow - are people going to be herded into churches by force?"

Perhaps as a result of his own belief, Putin has been more careful than his predecessors not to alienate Russia's millions of Moslems, particularly during the war against predominantly Moslem Chechnya. He was the first prime minister to receive Russian Moslem leaders in the White House, and stated firmly that Russia was not fighting Islam in Chechnya but only "bandits" and "terrorists."

Announcing the short-lived lull in bombings of Grozny on Jan. 7, Putin tied it not only to Orthodox Christmas, but also to the Moslem holiday of Eid-al-Fatr, known in Russia by its Turkic name, Uraza-Bairam - the end of Ramadan fasting. The holiday, for the first time, received wide coverage in Russian media, including Putin's greetings.

"Russian Moslems react very painfully to the strengthening of Christianity in Russia's public life," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Islam with the Moscow Carnegie Center. But Putin, he said, "has behaved more balanced as far as Moslems were concerned than Russia's previous leaders."