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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Protocols of Zion' Puts Church in Hot Water

For Mikhail Oshtrakh, a Jewish activist in Yekaterinburg, it seemed like a lost cause: Over three years he sent numerous -- and fruitless -- protests to prosecutors and other officials over what he saw as anti-Semitism in official Orthodox Church publications.

But it took one meeting with a Kremlin official in Moscow for the regional prosecutors to suddenly change their mind. Last month, they opened a criminal investigation into the fact that the Yekaterinburg diocese has distributed through church stores a book by early 20th-century author Sergei Nilus that contains a notorious anti-Semitic forgery known as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and had a bishop's blessing on its title page.

"When anti-Semitic literature is disseminated by marginal groups -- and they have been doing it for a long time -- no one attaches much weight to it," Oshtrakh, a biophysicist, said in a telephone interview last week. "But when it is done by the authoritative church, when it is presented with a bishop's blessing, it becomes dangerous."

The issue underscores widespread anti-Semitic convictions within the Russian Orthodox Church and its leaders' unwillingness or inability to deal with them. The secular authorities have also been reluctant in past years to go after hate rhetoric, whether espoused by State Duma deputies or neo-Nazi groups. Article 282 of the Criminal Code, which makes "igniting ethnic, racial or religious hatred" punishable by up to four years in prison, has been applied rarely in the five years of its existence. Only a few cases have made it to court, and no high-profile convictions have been reported.

Oshtrakh's campaign began in 1999 when Pravoslavny Vestnik, a magazine published by one of Yekaterinburg's Orthodox parishes, published anti-Semitic poems. Oshtrakh, who leads the Sverdlovsk regional branch of an organization called Jewish National Cultural Autonomy, sent letters to the regional department of the Press Ministry and to the prosecutor's office. Both went unanswered, he said.

After several other similar cases -- in which his complaints also went unanswered -- last July he saw in one of the church-run book stalls Nilus' book "Bliz Yest, Pri Dverekh" (It Is Near, Right at the Door), which contains as an appendix the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The book was published by Dioptra Orthodox Literature Center in St. Petersburg and bore the blessing of Archbishop Afanasy of Perm and Solikamsk.

By going after Nilus -- the best known popularizer of the protocols -- Oshtrakh has touched one of the foundation stones of Russian religious nationalism with its strong anti-Semitic component.

Sergei Nilus (1862-1929) was an eschatologically inclined Orthodox writer who first included the protocols in his 1905 book "Velikoye v Malom." The apocalyptic vision of a Jewish-inspired conspiracy of liberals and socialists against traditional European Christian monarchy became the central theme of his 1911 book, "Bliz Yest, Pri Dverekh."

The protocols purport to be a report from a series of meetings in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897 at the time of the first Zionist congress, at which Jews and Freemasons were said to be plotting to undermine Christian societies and establish a global government based on the power of money.

Exported to the West by Russian emigres (ACCENT AIGU ON BOTH Es), many of whom saw the 1917 Revolution in apocalyptic terms, the protocols became a classic of anti-Semitic literature and captured the imagination of anti-Semites from Henry Ford to Adolf Hitler. Ford's newspaper, Dearborn Independent, cited them as evidence of a Jewish threat, and in Nazi Germany they became mandatory reading at schools.

Even though several investigations in the 1920s and 1930s proved the protocols were forgeries by the Russian secret police -- who concocted them out of a 19th-century French satire about Napoleon III and a German fantastic novel -- the pamphlet continues to circulate among archconservative and white supremacist groups worldwide.

Banned in Soviet Russia, Nilus' writings and the protocols emerged in the past decade as one of the main pillars of the mythology of a Holy Russia destined to become the last bastion of Christiandom struggling against a host of liberal devils personified by Jews and Freemasons. This mythology is so strong in the Russian Orthodox community that even church leaders who refuse to underwrite it usually do not dare to oppose anti-Semitism publicly. When Patriarch Alexy II addressed a group of New York rabbis in 1992 with a carefully worded speech intended to mend bridges between the two faiths, he returned home to face vociferous accusations of heresy from influential groups of laymen.

Since in his book Nilus attacks not only Jews and Freemasons but also Muslims, Oshtrakh, who heads the Sverdlovsk division of KNOR, a coalition of groups representing ethnic minorities, organized a new series of petitions this time around -- also on behalf of Yekaterinburg's Tatar and Kazakh groups. It sent complaints to many government bodies -- from the mayor of Yekaterinburg to the presidential administration in Moscow, as well as to the prosecutors. But as before, first the city's and then the region's prosecutors saw no grounds for opening a criminal case.

Apparently unwilling to enter into a dispute with the influential Orthodox Church, some of the city's Jewish leaders also refused to support Oshtrakh. "We don't take the contents of Nilus's book kindly, but we don't consider it a pretext for creating a religious and political scandal," the spokeswoman for the city's synagogue said in July, news agencies reported. "We have long-standing and friendly relations with the Yekaterinburg Diocese."

In an attempt to quell the conflict, Archbishop Vikenty of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye, the head of the Orthodox Church in the region, met in August with the region's chief rabbi, Zelik Ashkenazi, who is part of the Lubavitcher-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a major Jewish group backed by the Kremlin in its rise to prominence. But the archbishop said it was Oshtrakh who was responsible for inciting hatred.

"There has never been any enmity between us, and attempts to sow it are dangerous," a diocese press release quoted the archbishop as saying during the meeting with the rabbi. Vikenty acknowledged that Nilus' book might be sold in some church bookstores. "But it is at the very least strange to consider it 'anti-Semitism,'" he said. "While fueling emotions by some individuals around what was written 100 years ago does indeed help ignite inter-ethnic enmity."

Feeling a little bit like a lonely warrior, Oshtrakh persisted. Help came from the Civic Forum -- a congress of nongovernmental groups organized by the Kremlin in November to foster a "dialogue between the state and society."

As a part of the forum, Oshtrakh met with government officials including Andrei Protopopov -- the top-level Kremlin official in charge of relations with religious organizations. "I had everything with me," Oshtrakh said. "I passed the documents to Protopopov and he promised to sort it out."

Just three weeks after he returned home, Oshtrakh received a letter from the prosecutor's office of the Urals Federal District, which supposedly of its own volition reconsidered the case and ordered the Sverdlovsk regional prosecutors on Dec. 13 to launch an investigation. By mid-February, Oshtrakh said, prosecutors promised to present preliminary results.

"We would be satisfied if these materials are officially recognized as igniting ethnic and religious hatred," Oshtrakh said in a telephone interview. "As a result, their dissemination without commentary should not be permitted by law."

He holds out little hope of anyone being punished, but he would like to receive a public apology from the diocese or, even better, from the Moscow Patriarchate. "If the church recognizes that Nilus' substantiation of a Jewish conspiracy is not normal, it would do a great deal to shake the foundations of religious anti-Semitism," Oshtrakh said.

That is unlikely to happen. Yekaterinburg Diocese spokesman Boris Kosinsky said the diocese will stop buying Nilus' books for its warehouse, but would make no apology.

"If I make such a statement, there will always be people who will say that powerful forces made me do it, and we will turn this fact of literature and history into a greater conflict," Kosinsky said in a telephone interview from Yekaterinburg.

Banning Nilus' books is not the answer and would only increase public interest, he said. "We lived long enough in a totalitarian society where certain things were forbidden to be published to serve one or another ideology," he said. "One book can only be challenged by another book and not by a court."

Archpriest Vladimir Silovyev, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Publishing Council, cautiously described the protocols as an "early 20th-century document that requires research and analysis."

"There is no anti-Semitism in the fact that they [the protocols] were published as part of Nilus' heritage," Silovyev said in a telephone interview. They should not have been published, however, with the blessing of a bishop, he said. The Patriarchate has investigated the case and established that Archbishop Afanasy did not give the blessing that was printed in the book, Silovyev said.

In a letter to Oshtrakh, Archbishop Afanasy said he was sorry for the "misunderstanding about the blessing" and expressed his respect for the Jewish people.