Orthodox Patriarch Kirill invited the United Russia deputies to his office to voice his angst over EU-backed plans to introduce sex education in Russian schools.
He left the meeting with a promise from the pro-Kremlin party that he would be allowed to preview all legislation considered in the State Duma.
The extraordinary agreement grants the Russian Orthodox Church a privilege not shared by any other religious community in Russia and not even afforded to the Public Chamber, the civil society advisory body that is supposed to have the right to examine pending legislation and influence its outcome.
It raises questions about separation between church and state, which is enshrined in the Constitution, and promises to raise new concerns about the growing clout of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has seen a revival since Vladimir Putin rose to power in 2000. Putin, now prime minister after eight years as president, heads United Russia.
Patriarch Kirill invited two senior United Russia deputies to his office near the Christ the Savior Cathedral on Wednesday to express his worries about the Duma’s ratification of the European Social Charter on May 20.
The charter, which Russia was obliged to approve as part of its membership in the Council of Europe, guarantees people’s right to housing, health, education, employment and other issues.
It also requires public schools to offer sex education and member states to establish juvenile justice systems aimed at deterring minors from committing crimes — two matters that the patriarch told Deputies Andrei Isayev and Vyacheslav Volodin that he opposes strongly.
Kirill said parents should be responsible for both sex education and disciplining their children, not the government.
“We told the patriarch … that the ratification of the charter won’t require any changes in Russian legislature and won’t lead to circumstances that will frighten the public,” Isayev said in a statement.
At the meeting, Kirill also asked whether he could preview upcoming legislation to prevent any misunderstandings in the future, and the deputies agreed.
“We agreed that we would show the patriarchate the State Duma’s plan for legislative work and hold preliminary consultations on all questions that may raise doubts to avoid mutual misunderstanding,” Isayev told Interfax.
Opposition politicians criticized the arrangement and called it a ploy for United Russia to boost its ratings amid the economic crisis.
“They can hold discussions with whoever they want, but there is the Constitution, which says the church and government are separate,” said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and leader of the Solidarity opposition group.
He warned that the agreement could lead to closer ties between the government and church, which already work together in many areas. For example, the Federal Court Marshals Service reached a deal with the church late last month for priests to denounce unpaid debts as a sin in their sermons.
Nemtsov said the church would now be able to shape the country’s laws.
“Of course it will influence the party’s politics, although they are doing it for PR purposes at the moment,” he said.
Communist Deputy Sergei Obukhov said he had no problem with the Orthodox church weighing in on legislation, but other faiths should be allowed to participate as well.
“The problem with the State Duma is that it is not enough open to the public,” Obukhov said. “We think that all confessions should participate.”
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the issue Thursday.
Putin incidentally met with Kirill on Thursday in one of the churches of the Valaam Monastery on an island in Karelia. Putin was in the northwestern republic for a meeting with customs officials.
Supporters of sex education say the lessons are desperately needed to fight HIV in Russia, where the rates are among the highest in the world.
“Our government is separate from the clergy. Schools should do what they think is necessary,” said Olga Romanova of Project Hope, which writes books and trains teachers on sex education.
But Romanova said the church probably would not have a great influence on legislature regarding sex education. “It will just lead to nothing,” she said. “Everyone wants the children to live, and most of the clergy consist of intelligent people.”
Alexander Brod, a human rights activist and member of the Public Chamber, said he believed the church would not have “considerable influence” on legislation.
He said the Public Chamber deserved at least the same privilege as the church to preview legislation.
Calls to church representatives went unanswered Thursday. United Russia officials also were unavailable for additional comment.
While the Russian Orthodox Church opposes sex education, it has taken a much milder stance on legislature concerning alcoholism and tobacco — two issues blamed for Russia’s demographic crisis and a host of social ills.