Preaching, Pope, and Purim

Non-Orthodox Christians described their continued struggles to worship freely, while grateful Jews celebrated Queen Esther's cleverness.
Posted Tuesday, March 18, 2003; 3:03 a.m.

Moscow - Journalism Professor Ari Goldman translates for Rabbi Gabriel Davydov of the Mountain Jews, a 15,000 member community in Moscow. Unlike most translated conversations during the trip, this one took place in Hebrew. PHOTO: Dan Evans

MOSCOW - Monday began with a Catholic prayer in honor of St. Patrick and ended with the Jewish festival of Purim.

As Columbia University journalism students continued their exploration of religion in post-Communist Russia, it seemed that everyone had something to celebrate. Catholics venerated St. Patrick, who brought the church to Ireland. Jews remembered Queen Esther for her bravery in rescuing them from the Persian tyrant Haman. And new Christian movements like Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists celebrated the fact that they do not celebrate, as least as far as national holidays and some Christian festivals are concerned.

While these open displays of faith were evidence of the religious revival following the end of Communism, it became clear as the day went on that some groups still struggle to practice their beliefs freely in modern-day Russia.

Before reporting came breakfast. Over an abundant hotel buffet, Tim Lavin blessed his group of fellow students and their guests with a traditional Irish prayer and gave the reporters in the room an ideal to live up to. "St. Patrick was a humble man and a hard worker," he said, as students woke up over numerous cups of coffee. "Maybe we should keep that in mind as we're working on our articles."

Two breakfast guests, Natasha Kim of the Jehovah's Witnesses and Jeff Scoggins of the Seventh Day Adventists, talked about their faith and the challenges they face as members of new Christian Movements in Russia. "It is a big problem to rent the necessary space," Kim said, estimating that 100 to 200 Muscovites gather each Friday for the week's main Witness meetings. "It doesn't have to do with money, but with the bias against Jehovah's Witnesses." Kim, a housewife, spends over three hours in transit, three times a week, to attend services with her sister Irina Medvedeva.

The Russian government does not recognize Jehovah's Witnesses as a legitimate religion. The Witnesses are in the midst of a seven-year court battle with the government, trying to gain the right to register as a religion. Seventh Day Adventists, in contrast, enjoy official sanction as one of the country's traditional religions because the faith existed in Russia before the Communist Revolution.

With an estimated 50,000 Russian members, the Seventh Day Adventists also have problems obtaining space, but for different reasons. "We're allowed to meet," said Jeff Scoggins, a boyish American just completing a two-year mission in Moscow. But he said that the group could not afford to rent enough meeting halls in the city to hold all its members.

After talking with the New Christian movements, the class headed out to meet the Catholics, who despite being another longstanding Russian religion still face government opposition. On the way, the students passed speeding cars covered in dirt, the house where Chekov lived, and a huge billboard announcing the upcoming arrival of '70s disco diva Gloria Gaynor.

Arriving at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a large red brick neo-Gothic church in the middle of Moscow, they were greeted by Olga Karpova, a correspondent for the Russian Catholic newspaper Svet Evangelia. Entering the sanctuary, Karpova explained that it was built around 1911 and was used as a factory during Soviet times. Returned to the Catholics in 1995, the church now serves worshippers from across the city.

Karpova described the Catholic Church's struggle with the government. Pope John Paul II has not been allowed to visit the country and several foreign-born Catholic bishops in Russia were denied visa renewals. Andrei Zolotov, a reporter for the Moscow Times and the group's translator, explained that the problem might stem from the Russian Orthodox Church's opposition to what it sees as Catholic proselytizing. After years of both denominations facing persecution by the Soviet government, the Russian Orthodox Church is now considered a semi-official state religion and enjoys closer ties to elected officials.

Before showing students to the newspaper's offices in the church basement, Karpova gestured to a stained glass window depicting St. Peter, the founder of the Catholic Church, standing with St. Andrew, a patron saint of Russia who is important to the Orthodox Church.

As the group piled back in the bus to head to the next stop, student Gabriel Rodriguez-Nava discovered that communication problems in Russia were not limited to religious matters. Triumphant at his purchase of toothpaste from a Russian pharmacy, he was informed by amused adjunct Celestine Bohlen that he had actually bought denture adhesive. After remedying the situation, the group was off to visit the Mountain Jews.

Rabbi Gabriel Davydov welcomed the students into a small synagogue decorated with balloons in anticipation of the Purim festival that night. A trim man with short black hair and a curly beard, Davydov described the history of the Mountain Jews, who were driven from Israel in the 5th or 6th century B.C., and eventually settled in the Caucasus. Citing the research of Oxford University historian Martin Gilbert, Davydov pointed out that although Mountain Jews were exposed to the Jewish cultures of Turkey and Iran, they still maintained many of their original traditions, including 18-month engagements before marriage and unique prayers for the dead.

Davydov told the group that after the fall of Communism in the early '90s, isolated groups of Mountain Jews migrated to Moscow, where the sect now numbers approximately 15,000. Although they maintain their separate traditions and primarily marry other Mountain Jews, they enjoy close relations with other Jewish denominations.

This close connection became clear when students were led out the back door of the small synagogue and through a passageway into the immense Choral Synagogue, Moscow's central place of Jewish worship, which remained open during the Soviet period and can accommodate hundreds of worshipers. A ten-foot-wide Star of David, composed of scores of blue balloons, hung over the pews. As the group left to get back on the bus, they passed worshippers on the way in, preparing to commemorate the Purim holiday with song and celebration.

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