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Yeltsin transformed Church-State relations

Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church has praised Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, who has died of heart failure in Moscow, for enabling a religious revival that took place across the former communist country during his presidency.

"In the new Russia, to the building of which the departed president directed his efforts, the Russian Orthodox Church was given the long-awaited opportunity to carry out its witness and service without restrictions," wrote the Patriarch in a letter of condolence to Yeltsin’s widow, Naina Yeltsina. The letter was posted on www.patriarhia.ru, the Web site of the Patriarch’s press service. "Boris Nikolayevich strove to maintain good relations between the state authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church," the Patriarch stated.

The funeral of Yeltsin, who died on 23 April aged 76, will be held on 25 April in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in view of the Kremlin. The cathedral was blown up on Stalin’s orders in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s during Yeltsin’s presidency. Yeltsin will be the first Russian leader to have a Christian burial since that of Tsar Alexander III in 1894.

The Rev. Vladimir Vigiliansky, director of the Patriarch’s press service, told the Interfax news agency that in his spiritual life Yeltsin had changed from being someone "who was very far from church life and prayer to someone who quite welcomed it". Another church spokesperson, the Rev. Mikhail Dudko, told the news agency it was symbolic that on a visit to Israel several weeks ago Yeltsin visited the River Jordan.

Leaders of Russia’s other major religions also expressed their condolences and respect. In a letter to the Yeltsin family, Rabbi Berl Lazar, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, recalled his first meeting with Yeltsin in 1991. There Russia’s first freely elected president promised to "do everything possible for the return to believing Jews of the synagogues that had been seized from them by the communist regime".

Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of Russia’s Council of Muftis, told Interfax that Russia’s Muslims are grateful to Yeltsin for the "law on religion" passed during his tenure. Yeltsin was unpopular, however, with many Russian Muslims due to the protracted war in Chechnya, and many minority groups complain that the "law on religion" is overly restrictive.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, leader of Russia’s Roman Catholics, said that "however politicians of various parties and coalitions, economists, commentators and other experts" might regard Yeltsin’s actions, the fact that religious services are held daily across the country after decades of being banned are "living witness of the benign rule" under the former president.

(c) Ecumenical News International