Dozens of Orthodox priests took Russians by surprise this week to defend jailed anti-government protesters, breaking ranks with Church authorities who for years have aligned themselves with the Kremlin.
Experts say the move is part of a quiet revolution in the powerful but opaque Russian Orthodox Church, with a generation of clerics increasingly willing to criticize their superiors.
In an open letter, the priests asked courts to reconsider “repressive” jail terms handed down to six people over demonstrations this summer calling for fair elections.
The sentences “look like they are [intended] to intimidate Russians,” said the letter, which has so far been signed by 124 clerics. “We want to express our hope that Russian citizens will live with trust in the justice system.”
The clerics published the missive without the consent of the church administration — led by the influential Patriarch Kirill, a staunch ally of President Vladimir Putin.
One of the clerics who signed the letter, Father Konstantin Momotov from the southern city of Volgograd, told reporters the move was “about simple Christian care for people who need it and nothing more.”
He insisted there is nothing political about it and that it is not hostile to church authorities, which he has served for 25 years.
“If I see that someone needs protection, as a priest I want to take part in that,” he said.
Another priest who signed the letter, Father Yevgeny Lapayev, whose parish is in the Siberian city of Tyumen, also stressed the act was apolitical.
“I just thought that the measures taken by authorities and the courts have been excessively harsh,” he said.
Widely shared on social media, many Russians welcomed the letter, some saying it was overdue.
“There has been nothing like this in years,” church expert Ksenia Lutchenko said. “It was completely unexpected.”
“They were able to unite without the church leadership and express a clear Christian position: to ask for mercy for prisoners,” she said.
Dmitry Sverdlov, a former Orthodox priest who fell foul of the institution over its position on the 2012 Pussy Riot case, said the priests would “inevitably” face consequences.
He said a common method of exerting pressure on provincial priests, who often have families, is to lower their financial allowances to a “bare minimum for survival.”
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