Why Is the Church Silent about Anti-LGBT+ Violence in Russia?

by Katherine Kelaidis

rainbow laces.jpgThere are a lot of really good reasons to ban FIFA ’17, including the bevy of corruption scandals that seem to plague the governing body of the world’s most popular sport. But a group of Russian MPs, many from Vladimir Putin’s own United Russia Party, have managed to seize on the most ridiculous: “The FIFA multiplatform video game… invites users to support the action of the English Premier League’s ‘Rainbow shoelaces’ action – a large-scale campaign in support of the LGBTQ+ community. Meanwhile, according to the law the ‘protection of children from information harmful to their health and development’…includes information that promotes non-traditional sexual relations.”

The MPs’ letter is just a recent (and, let’s be honest, absurd) example of the hostile climate that LGBTQ+ people face in Russia, particularly since the passage of the 2013 “Anti-Propaganda” law (the one referenced above by the MPs). It is a situation well-documented by human right organizations and Western media outlets, from the Human Rights Watch’s 2016 World Report to HBO’s 2014 documentary “Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia.” It is a climate in which gender and sexual minorities in Russia are routinely subject to violence and in which the State just as routinely ignores this violence. In short, it is a situation unacceptable under the standards set by modern human rights law and, arguably, by ancient Christian understandings of agape-love and mercy. And yet, it is a situation not so tacitly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and its head, Patriarch Kirill. For example, in an interview at the beginning of last year, Patriarch Kirill offered an explanation-cum-apologia for ISIS that laid the blame for the terrorist group at the feet of LGBTQ+ people and their allies in the West, saying (in part), “Look how they (the West) build the world – an unholy world – but we invite you to build God’s world… and they (ISIS supporters) respond to that; it is for this they give their lives.” If the head of the Russian Orthodox Church explains away ISIS via the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, then how can we hope to end the horrific violence faced by these same people in Russia?

It is interesting that ISIS is mentioned here, because it is here that the fundamental challenge for Orthodox Christians outside of Russia emerges, namely this: When terrorists and extremists wreak havoc in the name of Islam, we routinely ask where the “moderate Muslims” are. We demand that Muslims in New York and London and Topeka denounce the actions of extremists who have hijacked their tradition and put it to violent purpose. I have written elsewhere asking why we do not demand the same of Orthodox Christians in response to the horrific anti-LGBTQ+ violence in Russia. And while there were many encouraging replies, some of what I saw in response was more trying to my faith than anything else I have experienced in my life. I excused the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s notably restrained response to the massacre in Orlando by convincing myself that it was a mere oversight that the statement failed to mention that the victims had been targeted because of their sexual orientations and gender identities. But even in this most generous analysis, it is a convenient oversight, a means by which to condemn obviously egregious violence, but to avoid any conversation about the contribution by religion, including by those within the Orthodox Church, to  homophobia—the violent targeting of persons because of their sexual identity.

To be clear, issues like same-sex marriage, gender presentation, and the place of gender and sexual minorities in the pastoral and liturgical life of the Church are a different topic than the one I raise here. They are important and necessary conversations to be had, but they are different. The point I raise here is simple: Human beings, icons made by the Living God in His Image–human persons, for whom Christ suffered and died– are, in a traditionally Orthodox land, frequently in the name of the Orthodox faith, and with the quiet approval of high-ranking Orthodox clerics, being subjected to relentless violence. At what point must Orthodox Christians speak out against this abuse of God’s beloved children—our brothers and sisters? At what point, when people are being routinely raped, beaten and murdered in the name of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith, do we say something? Because, I know, as sure as I know that God is in Heaven, that anyone who would do something that horrific (or who would turn a blind-eye to it) cannot possibly be living the faith of my mother, or have encountered the Christ of my beloved grandfather, who would offer loving care for injured birds and abandoned baby rabbits, because “the Lord put them here.”

Without a doubt, the most dangerous places in Europe for gender or sexual minorities are those places that have been traditionally Orthodox. Look, for example, at the very different trajectories LGBTQ+ rights have taken in Croatia and Serbia, two nations whose division is almost entirely a matter of religion. While neither country is necessarily an egalitarian paradise, there is little doubt that the march towards tolerance and legal equality has been much more rapid and far-reaching in Croatia than in Serbia. And no place in Europe is more obviously, virulently, and officially anti-LGBTQ+ than Russia. While there is certainly no cause to lay the entire blame for this situation at the feet of the Church, it is difficult to imagine an explanation in which Orthodoxy does not factor. Thus, Orthodox Christians have a moral responsibility to examine the ways in which we individually and corporately contribute to violent homophobia, in Russia and beyond. And the simplest first step in this area is to condemn homophobic violence, whenever it occurs, but especially when it occurs in the name of our faith. It is the type of responsibility we demand from others, and it is (no doubt) the responsibility we should demand from ourselves.

Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian whose work focuses on early Medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries.