A caricature poking fun at Orthodox Christian priests and the powers that be has sparked an outcry in Kazakhstan, a country that markets itself as a bastion of religious tolerance.
The offending cartoon appeared in the Russian-language Megapolis broadsheet on January 14, illustrating an article called “Christmas Surprise” that recounted how Astana city officials hijacked the Russian Orthodox Christmas service at the Church of the Holy Assumption in the capital. (Orthodox Christmas is marked on January 7.)
“Bewildered” worshippers were forced to line up along a red carpet to welcome officials from the office of Astana Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov, while “church officials scurried about here and there and fussed around, waiting for the arrival of the important guests,” the article recounted.
After being given the red carpet treatment, the two bureaucrats were taken to the ambo, a special part of the church from which sermons are read (out of bounds to ordinary worshippers). From there, they read out a message from Tasmagambetov, a high-profile politician sometimes tipped as a future president.
“What was this? Some sort of political event, or still a church holiday?” one annoyed worshipper asked.
To illustrate such sentiments, Megapolis published the cartoon showing a porky priest telling a meek-looking Jesus wearing a crown of thorns: “Citizen, free up the ambo or I’ll call the riot police!”
Church officials were quick to take offense. “The article and the caricature have had negative repercussions in the Orthodox community,” Bishop Gennadiy of Kaskelen (near Almaty) told a news conference on January 23.
God must be really confused at times by the religious squabbles in the South Caucasus, the Almighty’s favorite spot on earth, per local legends, and a place where church and politics are deeply intertwined. The latest in the centuries-old series of church mergers and break-ups comes from breakaway Abkhazia. Following long-running tensions, a schism in Abkhazia’s de facto independent church is now official.
It makes for an extremely complicated tableau. On May 15, a group of young Abkhaz clerics effectively parted ways with the territory’s de facto Orthodox leader, Father Vissarion Aplia, and declared a new diocese that will seek recognition of an independent Abkhaz Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople, essentially the pope of the Christian Orthodox world.
Describing the clerics as "young, Western stipendiaries," supporters of the 70s-something Father Vissarion reminded "the dissenters" (раскольники) that the Abkhaz Orthodox Church's independence was already declared in 2009, and that their declaration "insulted" Father Vissarion as a "veteran of the Abkhaz People's Patriotic War" [meaning the 1992-1993 separatist conflict with Tbilisi].
So, to ballpark it, tiny Abkhazia now has two conflicting parties within an Orthodox church that, to begin with, is not formally recognized by the international Orthodox community. Abkhazia's parishes are still formally recognized as subject to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Both wings of the de facto Abkhaz church want recognition of the region’s religious independence -- or autocephaly in church speak -- but they differ in their dealings with the Russian patriarchate.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s advice to Russian women to cut down on alcohol and dress more modestly not to provoke men from the Caucasus continues to spark anger among feminist activists. Rights groups accused the church of sexism, and even described clerics’ call for a national “dress code” as attempts to introduce a “Christian hijab” in a secular state.
The church’s statement came amidst an increase in tensions between nationalists and Russian citizens of Caucasus descent. Russian media often promote stereotypical portraits of men from the Caucasus -- collectively described as "Caucasians" -- as macho swashbucklers, with a penchant for harassing Russian women.
“If she [a woman] wears a mini-skirt, than she may provoke even a Russian, let alone a Caucasian,” opined Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who handles the church's public relations. “If on tops of this she’s also drunk, then she is sure to provoke somebody.”
While many rights activists are rolling their eyes, a group called Pro-Feminism is collecting signatures to request Russian Patriarch Kirill I that the church refrains from discriminatory and sexist statements in the future.
The Russian muftiyat, a Russia-wide Muslim council, has also come out in support of the Archpriest's dress code.
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