Patriarch Kirill I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, voiced support for pro-democracy protesters over the weekend and called on the government to respect their demands, in a rare act of defying the state.
Kirill I urged the government Saturday, Jan. 7, the day Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas, to respond to protesters and affirm their right to demonstrate. He did not, however, question the legitimacy of the elections or criticize Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, according to The New York Times. The patriarch's support came amidst social unrest following the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections in Russia, in which Putin’s United Russia party won by a narrow majority and was accused by many of rigging the vote.
Since the elections, multiple protests have taken place on the streets of Moscow, and many of the protesters were arrested, which triggered an outcry from pro-democracy organizations in Russia and abroad.
Meanwhile, Putin – a politician with a track record of quenching civil disobedience – went on denying the allegations that any sort of unfair process was involved in the elections, and went as far as to accuse U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the unrest in his country.
More than 70 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, according to U.S. Department of State data. But the church's decision to endorse pro-democracy voices has raised some eyebrows, as it has been so far a strong supporter of the government, according to reports. In a rare act of standing up to the government, the patriarch said Saturday that if the authorities remain insensitive to protesters' message, it would be "a very bad sign, a sign of the authorities’ inability to adjust," as quoted by The New York Times. Kirill I also reportedly warned the government that a crackdown on protesters would be reminiscent of the oppression practiced in the Soviet era.
"Every person in a free society must have the right to express his opinion, including disagreement with the actions of the authorities," the patriarch said.
The Russian Federation is considered to still be a gray area for democracy. The past year saw a "clampdown on social activism," especially on the groups which raised controversial issues, were capable of mobilizing public dissent or were funded from abroad, according to Amnesty International's 2011 report. The watchdog group reported that organizers of past protests often faced harassment and intimidation, including from law enforcement officials and members of pro-government organizations. Several peaceful demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg were declared unauthorized and forcibly dispersed resulting in scores of demonstrators being held for several hours in police custody in 2011.
During the recent Dec. 2011 protests, participants were shouted slogans like: "I’m a citizen of my country;" "We want fair elections!" and "Our opinion matters!" Organizers of the protests estimated that attendance exceeded 100,000 people, according to Agentura, a Russian human rights watchdog. The crowd was very heterogeneous, featuring organized political groups and individuals of all backgrounds, the agency reported.