Freedom of Belief Still 'Urgent' Matter, Adventist Religious Liberty Leader Says
Vitko says 'We are waiting for the future'
BY ELIZABETH LECHLEITNER, Adventist News Network
n Russia, Protestant denominations are biding their time.
"We are waiting for the future," says Viktor Vitko, the Seventh-day Adventist Church's religious liberty leader for Northern Asia and Eastern Europe. Vitko believes Russia -- which recently elected a new president, Dmitry Medvedev -- is on the cusp of change, and he wants Adventists to help steer the country toward more freedom of belief.
Events such as a recent Religious Liberty Festival in St. Petersburg are a vital means of keeping freedom of belief an "urgent" topic of discussion among citizens and leaders in the country, says Vitko, who directs the church's department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) for the region.
Despite the separation of church and state mandated by Russia's constitution, Vitko says citizens do not yet enjoy full-fledged religious liberty. Seeking a post-Soviet ideological anchor, many Russians, he says, are finding stability in the country's dominant Orthodox religion. Some two-thirds of Russians now count themselves Orthodox, roughly twice as many as when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
But Vitko worries most Russians are seeking a sense of nationalism, not moral guidance. With the Orthodoxy and the state seemingly in lockstep, Vitko says even existing religious liberties could vanish if Adventists and other minority Protestant denominations don't work to maintain positive relations with officials.
The July 4 to 5 festival falls on the 6th anniversary of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is expected to draw more than 1,000 attendees, including government and Orthodox Church representatives, human rights workers, scientists, journalists and religious liberty proponents, Vitko says.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY ADVOCATE: Viktor Vitko, Adventist Church religious liberty director for Russia, says a recent religious liberty festival in St. Petersburg will help prioritize freedom of belief in a country where the Orthodox Church is replacing communism as the "ideological common ground." [Photo: ESD]
The 61-year-old's technical education and degree from church-run Zaoksky Theological Seminary have informed his religious liberty work over the years -- he has held PARL directorships at several local church offices since 1995 and has worked at Euro-Asia church headquarters for five years. To help usher in this weekend's event, Vitko outlined some of the church's religious liberty efforts and concerns in an interview with ANN. Excerpts, translated by Vladimir Iyevenko, follow.
Adventist News Network: This isn't the first religious liberty festival you've helped organize in Russia. What goals are on the table this time?
Viktor Vitko: We hope that this festival will draw the attention of the city's residents, of government authorities and of other leaders and organizations in St. Petersburg. We hope our discussions show that issues of religious freedom are urgent and that many people are striving to improve human rights and freedom of conscience in Russia. We will also show a special film during the festival to honor the opening of a monument in the Levashovo wasteland near St. Petersburg, where, in the 1930s under Stalin, many people including several Adventists were tortured and executed. We want the authorities and the residents in St. Petersburg to remember this, and to know that religious liberty is still a problem in this country.
ANN: The Russian constitution mandates separation of church and state. Why have you indicated that some freedoms remain stymied?
Vitko: We have observed over the past several years, unfortunately, the clericalization of power by the Russian Orthodox Church. According to prominent Russian experts, the Orthodox Church is striving to reestablish a unified society under the banner of clericalism, controlled by the political elite. Orthodoxy provides the ideological common ground for society, the same role which the ideology of the Communist Party once provided in this country. That's the reality in Russia today.
ANN: How does the Adventist Church navigate such a strong religious tradition in the country to work for more freedom of belief?
Vitko: Our church combines its efforts with other protestant churches in Russia to host some joint events, and here in Euro Asia, conduct religious liberty conferences, in which scientists and official representatives take part in ongoing discussions with a purpose to block this trend toward clericalization that is very prevalent in this country. This weekend's festival in St. Petersburg will be one such event meant to help rebalance church and state relations.
ANN: How can you measure the effectiveness of such conferences? Do you see any tangible results?
Vitko: That is not an easy question. What we are doing most is raising awareness. We expect that the new Russian president will help move relations between church and state in Russia toward a model more fitting of a secular state. We hope that President [Dmitry] Medvedev will develop the process in the right direction. Of course we do not know -- will see what the future brings.
ANN: Western news reports indicate that the Russian government is reining in the country's media. Have the church's outreach efforts also been hindered?
Vitko: We can only make connections by using denominational channels of communication. We have very little contact with the state mass media. We rely heavily on the Internet for outreach and spreading news about the church. Unfortunately the public media is government controlled and not willing to publish any information about church events or reflect our point of view on issues. We are benefited greatly by the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, which helps raise public awareness of Protestant churches in Russia. This organization defends the rights of all religious organizations, and it sets legal precedents in the courts, which are reported on by the mass media. They also issue a journal, 'Religion and Law,' which publishes information about many denominations, including our church. So in that way we have a chance to publish articles reflecting the Adventist point of view.
ANN: As the church's religious liberty director for the region, you've repeatedly emphasized that talking to other religious groups is a vital part of fostering religious freedom. That being said, what is the Adventist Church's current relationship with the Russian Orthodoxy?
Vitko: In spite of the many distinctions, we have very good contact and we maintain very good relations with the Orthodox Church. Last year, John Graz [Adventist world church PARL director] visited Russia and we organized a visit with one of the heads of the Orthodox Church to discuss issues of religious freedom. We also have good relations established with the president of the Russian federation, with government officials, with their commissioner for human rights and other state representatives. Through those contacts, we are active in attending religious freedom events and collaborating with representatives from other Protestant religions. Our goal with these events is that the citizens of Russia and government officials will see that our churches can influence positively upon society and be valuable members in Russia.