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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not All Among the Chosen

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Something quite mundane seems to have helped one religious community bring together an illustrious assortment of the big international names in the area of religion: oil. Far from the impoverished relative invited to sit in humbly as the G7 grandees conferred, Russia is now holding its head high in the G8, with many suitors pandering for a share of its black riches.

Without this month's G8 meeting in St. Petersburg, the idea for a Russian-based summit of international religious leaders under the patronage of the Moscow Patriarchate would likely have ended up as a dull sideshow drawing only B-list attendees.

The Moscow Patriarchate still did not invite the pope or Dalai Lama.

At Moscow's President Hotel this week, however, the Russian Orthodox Church at last got its moment on the world stage. Patriarch Alexy II took his place next to President Vladimir Putin, and a prospective patriarchal contender, Metropolitan Kirill beside prospective presidential contender Dmitry Medvedev. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan even thought enough to send his greetings.

But hosting the meeting has come at a price. To howls of protest from those among their flock who believe that the Orthodox Church is wrong to sit down with heretics and unbelievers, the patriarchate's leaders had to invite people from international religious bodies they have long vilified, including the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. Following Monday's opening session, Kirill also had to don a friendly smile as four of Russia's leading Baptists and Pentecostals -- dangerous sectarians in any other context -- posed alongside him for photographs.

Letting in a few decorative local religious minority figures is one thing. But the Moscow Patriarchate still could not bring itself to invite two foreigners at the top of anyone's list of world religious leaders: Pope Benedict XVI and the Dalai Lama. Alexy's complaints about the Catholic Church's activities in Russia and Ukraine continue to allow him to maintain that the time is not yet ripe for a meeting with Benedict. As for the Dalai Lama, Kirill stated that the lack of invitation was to avoid souring the Tibetan leader's own relations with the Chinese.

Nor were any local leaders of "new religions" invited. A patriarchate spokesman explained a month before the summit that this was because many representatives of world religions would refuse to engage in dialogue with them. "In particular, it would be difficult for us to sit down at the same table as the Jehovah's Witnesses, who greatly distort Christian teaching," he argued. One wonders how Koranic pronouncements on the Prophet Isa and his mother are any more palatable for the Russian Orthodox.

Few could object to many of the sentiments expressed on the conference's declared themes. Avoiding inter-religious hatred, clashes of civilizations and promoting respect for religious and moral values are all admirable aims. But in the light of Kirill's bold promise that no "political correctness" would prevent the conference from tackling difficult subjects, will there be any serious impact on the conflict in Chechnya or the rise in fatal racist attacks across Russia? Will it end the complaints from Russia's religious minorities that the state treats them as second-class citizens? Will Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Jehovah's Witness and non-Patriarchate Orthodox now be free to build places of worship, rent state-owned facilities, promote their activities in the public arena and have equal access to state institutions like prisons and hospitals, as guaranteed by the Constitution?

On the contrary, a web site run by Nizhny Novgorod's Muslim community complained last month that the summit was primarily intended to reinforce the Orthodox Church's dominant status. Previously used to taking second place in the patriarchate's pecking order of "traditional confessions" (Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism), Russia's Muslim leaders are becoming increasingly disquieted by the church's penetration of the armed forces to the exclusion of other groups. Like the Old Believers -- surely one of Russia's most "traditional" faiths -- they are also alarmed at the inroads now being made into the state education system by the patriarchate's "Foundations of Orthodox Culture" course. The key role among the nation's faiths claimed by Russian Orthodox hierarchs as they led this week's summit, the Nizhny Novgorod Muslims wrote in a message published on their web site, will result in the world's religious leaders unwittingly "giving carte blanche for further clericalization of Russia according to the position of the Orthodox Church."

Will this end complaints about the treatment of religious minorities?

For journalists who endured the 45-minute security checks to make it into the President Hotel -- built for the Communist Party Central Committee and now the property of the presidential administration -- being shunted into a separate room to watch proceedings on screen was reminiscent of a round of international political meetings, or of Soviet-era conferences stage-managed to the last detail, with agendas packed with meaningless platitudes. Putin himself opened his address by recalling that such a "broad and uniquely representative" forum last met under Soviet auspices almost 25 years ago, referring to the World Conference of Religious Workers to Save the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe. That event, he maintained, could now "without exaggeration be considered a step toward overcoming world confrontation and the end of the Cold War."

As the fleet of VIP cars leaving the President Hotel on Monday caused gridlock in rush-hour Moscow, however, it was hard to imagine how the summit could produce anything more than irritation for ordinary citizens trying to get home -- even those with a crucifix dangling above their dashboards.

Felix Corley and Geraldine Fagan are correspondents for the Oslo-based Forum 18 News Service, which monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet Union.