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Unorthodox behaviour rattles Russian church -

Unorthodox behaviour rattles Russian church -

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April 13, 2012 7:30 pm

Unorthodox behaviour rattles Russian church

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill©AP
Yuri Shevchenko, a retired doctor and health minister, never imagined he would be fighting a $1m Russian lawsuit that would see his bank accounts frozen, his grown son forced to move back home and travel restrictions imposed on him so he could not travel abroad for cancer treatment.
He also never imagined that the claimant in the suit would be a woman with such deep connections to the Russian patriarch.


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Lidiya Leonova, a laywoman, claims that dust from renovation work in Mr Shevchenko’s Moscow flat wreaked Rbs26m ($900,000) worth of damage to her own flat upstairs. While Ms Leonova is registered in the flat and initiated the suit, the flat belongs to Kirill I, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The scandal is one of several to envelop the Russian Orthodox Church, as the institution faces increasingly serious allegations of corruption and criticism for its role in Russian politics.
Last week bloggers discovered that a photograph of the patriarch on the church’s website had been altered to remove a $30,000 Breguet watch from the churchman’s wrist. While someone had used Photoshop to erase the offending object, they had forgotten to erase the watch’s reflection on a nearby mahogany table.
The church has been criticised for its harsh response to Pussy Riot, the feminist punk rock group whose young members are facing seven-year jail sentences for staging an impromptu performance inside a Moscow church, and its public support for Vladimir Putin despite mass protests.
On a more troubling scale, there is the history of Mr Shevchenko’s flat, as well as a land dispute in southern Moscow that has disadvantaged hundreds of children with severe cerebral palsy who are being treated at a local centre.
The church argues that all the allegations are part of a smear campaign ahead of the Russian Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated this Sunday.
Vsevolod Chaplin, the church’s spokesman, is flippant about the watch incident – he scoffs that people will take issue with the patriarch’s boots or glasses next. But he gets serious when it comes to the other allegations.
“The church, to a greater extent, is trying to speak with its full voice on issues connected with economics, politics, culture and social life, and a lot of people don’t like this.”
Father Andrei Kuraev, a priest who has spoken out in defence of Pussy Riot, argues that many members of the church are enjoying the soap opera nature of the allegations. “A lot of people look at the patriarch as being the same as they are and they get some kind of pleasure out of watching the mighty fall,” he says.
While media reports have suggested that Ms Leonova might have enjoyed an inappropriate relationship with the patriarch, the church vehemently denies this. Mr Chaplin says she is the church leader’s cousin and stays there while the patriarch lives in his official residence. “There is nothing unusual in that either from the point of view of church law or secular law.”

Troubling times

Head of the church since January 2009, Kirill I has cut a dividing figure in his efforts to expand the church’s role in Russian society.
Born in Leningrad, he started out as a young member of the Communist party, before joining the church, as his father and grandfather had done, and eventually rising to become the archbishop of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.
While the recent scandals are the most serious he has faced in his career, they are not the first.
In the 1990s, he was accused of profiteering from church tax breaks on imported alcohol and tobacco, in a scheme that was eventually killed in 1997. Separately he has also been accused of being an ex-KGB member. The patriarch has denied both allegations.
The church leader has been a strong supporter of the Kremlin: earlier this year he referred to the Putin era as a “miracle of God”.
Ms Leonova’s claims include Rbs7.3m to renovate her flat, Rbs2.1m to rent a similar one in Moscow during the renovation period and Rbs6.3m to replace the flat’s books alone.
Valuing Mr Shevchenko’s flat at Rbs15m, versus the market price of Rbs50m-Rbs60m, Ms Leonova’s lawyers were able to freeze the Shevchenko family’s bank accounts and prevent the former minister from travelling abroad. Mr Shevchenko’s 39-year-old son, a lawyer, was forced to sell his St Petersburg flat to cover the costs and move in with his parents in Moscow.
The younger Mr Shevchenko, also named Yuri, says that when the family first learnt who the owner of the upstairs flat was, their thought was: “Thank God it’s the patriarch.” But their relief has turned to horror. While the son is reluctant to say anything negative about the church ahead of Easter, he is adamant that his family has been the victim.
“What disturbs me is not the issue with the watch or who owns the apartment. What disturbs me is that this process has driven my parents mad. My father is sick, my mother has been working on these legal processes for about three years. And the fact that this coincides with such aggressive lobbying . . . This sort of ploy has elements of sadism.”
On Friday the family were allowed access to their flat again after they paid Ms Leonova a reduced sum of Rbs20m so that their bank cards could be unfrozen.
For a long time, Mr Shevchenko says neither he nor his father could believe that the patriarch knew about the case. Then last week they learnt the truth. In an interview with a Kremlin-friendly journalist, the patriarch admitted he was acquainted with the proceedings. The Rbs20m would go to charity, the church leader said.
On top of the flat scandal, the church has separately come under fire for its treatment of sick children at a cerebral palsy centre outside Moscow.
As part of a land dispute, a Russian Orthodox monastery has restricted access to the path that connects two of the hospital’s wings, forcing the children, many of whom are in wheelchairs, to take a 1.5km-long route instead. The monastery has also laid claims to the land beneath one of the buildings, raising concerns that the hospital will be forced to pay rent to the monastery that would otherwise go towards treatment.
Asked about the situation, Marina Tikhomirova is moved to tears. She and her daughter, Tanya, who has been living at the centre since 1998, have long looked to the church, and the monastery specifically, for solace. “For believers, for charitable people, it was ungodly, it was very offensive. The children are sick and it’s hard to talk about it without tears,” she says. “We don’t see any charity from the church in this situation.”
While Yevgeny Lilin, the centre’s deeply religious director, says he believes that the patriarch could not know anything of their situation, Elena Kamchatnya, another mother, disagrees, noting that the chain of responsibility goes straight to the top. “[The patriarch] he sees and observes all of this with his own eyes,” she says angrily.
Mr Chaplin maintains that the land in question is the monastery’s “by law and by fairness”. “No one is preparing to kick the children out,” he adds.