The relationship between Church and State in Russia is far too close

This magazine has long deplored the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which have led, among other things, to the imprisonment for the best part of a decade of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman held on death row, for the “crime” of insulting Muhammad, whom Muslims believe to be a prophet.

Remarkably, very few in the West have taken up Asia Bibi’s cause, preferring, one assumes, not to disrupt relations with Pakistan. This is a great pity, as the case of Asia Bibi is not only of the greatest importance for her, but also for the whole of Pakistan, if it is ever to grow into a mature democracy.

That Pakistan still has an enormous way to go is to be seen in the adulation accorded to a man convicted and executed for the murder of Salmaan Taseer, a vocal campaigner against e blasphemy law.

Now we have a new blasphemy case, but not quite where you would expect it. Not Saudi Arabia, but Russia. The Guardian recounts that a man has been arrested and put on trial for “offending the sentiments of Orthodox believers” following an internet exchange in which he declared his atheism.

It seems that in the wake of the Pussy Riot demonstration in the main Cathedral of Moscow a few years ago, a law was introduced to outlaw such actions, and the same law is being used in this case.

This may just be a case of a bad law being used in a bad way, and it may be that the law occasioned by the Pussy Rioters will in due course be repealed, given that it can lead to prosecutions as ridiculous as this. Let us hope that is the case.

But, as we all know, though many are keen to deny it, Russia is not a normal country, and this law is proof of that. Indeed this prosecution reminds us just what it was that Pussy Riot were protesting about. And as time passes, one begins to see that they had a point.

The relationship between Church and State in Russia is close, too close, and this is bad for both Church and State and ordinary citizens.

It is embarrassing, or ought to be, that State power is used to make life hard for those who do not hold the doctrines of the national Church. This applies to internet atheists, of course, but also to members of other religious groups.

If we consider our own history, is it not embarrassing for the Anglicans that they had to enforce their Prayer Book by Act of Parliament and by fines, imprisonments, torture and execution?

Of course what is happening to this internet atheist, Victor Krasnov, hardly compares to what happened to Edmund Campion of Margaret Clitherow, but the principle is the same: the state is interfering in matters of conscience.

Can’t the Russian Orthodox Church make an appeal to conscience based on conscience alone, without the backing of hard power? Does Islam need the power of the state to crush people like Asia Bibi? Can it not survive without state coercion?

Also at stake is the concept of the so called “right not to be offended”. If someone offends the sentiments of Orthodox believers, does it matter? Frankly, no. We simply cannot prosecute everyone who may offend us. We ought to grow thicker skins.

We in Britain know this well – after all, we Catholics had to put up with the late (and in some ways lamented ) Ian Paisley for decades.

As for the internet, that is full of people who are far more vocal than Mr Krasnov in their denunciations of theism in general and Catholicism in particular. It is something we have got used to, even if the unfairness of some of the attacks may take our breath away. And this is good. The Church has to set up its stall in the great marketplace of humanity, and as such it cannot hide behind legal privilege conferred on it by the state, but must embrace the level playing field.

The Russian national Church will have to learn this lesson in due course. Mr Putin has conferred many privileges on it, of which the law under which Mr Krasnov is being prosecuted is but one. But Mr Putin will not be there forever. When he goes, as one day he must, the Church may well feel the chill wind of reaction.

Meanwhile, we Catholics need to stick up for freedom of conscience, a freedom which extends to atheists. So let us support Mr Krasnov, and let us not forget the ongoing horrors in Saudi Arabia where internet atheists do not face simply one year in jail, but a far worse punishment.

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