Russians love Christmas, but not in church

During the Christmas liturgies, Church attendence fluctuates between 1 and 3%. This is the lowest figure found in all Christian countries, including secularized France. The government praises the results of Moscow's "Journey into Christmas", but some emphasize its commercial and popular character.

Jan 14, 2020

By Vladimir Rozanskij
The Sova statistical research center, one of the most authoritative in the country, has published data on church attendance region by region during the Orthodox Christmas liturgies of the past week.  The figures range between 1 and 3%, for an overall average over Russia not exceeding 2%, in line with the last few years, even if slightly decreasing.  This is the lowest frequency found in all Christian countries (France, one of the most secularized, is around 5-7%).

This poor propensity of Russians to participate in liturgical ceremonies illustrates the specific character of Russian orthodoxy, which is affirming itself through national-popular, rather than expressly religious identitification. Boris Yeltsyn, the first post-communist president in the 1990s, would often refer to his countrymen as "Orthodox atheists".  The representatives of the patriarchate of Moscow have not commented the data, but they do not seem to be particularly worried about them, so much so that they continue to develop ecclesiastical building programs that increasingly contrast with the low attendence of faithful.

At the same time the mayor of Moscow, Putin's loyal Sergey Sobjanin, has lauded the great success of the "Journey into Christmas" festival, which took place in the capital from 13 December to 12 January, and which registered  over 15 million visitors.  Last year the event reached 18.6 million participants over a longer period;  Sobjanin expressed his pride in the record for "the biggest Christmas party in Europe", where various cultural events, winter sports competitions, Christmas culinary proposals and a wide selection of souvenirs are held.

Christmas extends to the western (December 25) and eastern (January 7) "double calendar", taking on a predominantly commercial and popular character, in which the religious part is decidedly blurred.  The celebrations last until 19 January, the date of the Orthodox feast of the Baptism of the Lord, in which many participate in the "bath in the icy waters" which is held after the liturgies.  This year the Russians are worried about the high temperatures, which melt the ice preventing an effective realization of the orthodox folkloric tradition.

The same phenomenon, moreover, is repeated also on the occasion of the Easter holidays. This holiday is more keenly felt in the Orthodox Church than Christmas, and in which the percentage of faithful in the church rises up to about 3%.  Many go to church only for the blessing of Easter cakes, without taking part in the rites.  The percentage of "active" Orthodox in Russia has not increased, indeed it has been declining for several years, despite the intense religious propaganda supported by state and local public structures and political leaders always present in the front row of the liturgies, starting with President Vladimir  Putin.

The protagonism of the Orthodox Church in the various social problems, in defense of the family, unborn life and moral values, seems unable to change the trendof the highest percentage numbers of abortions and divorces in the world.  The Church stands in defense of the Christian vision of private and public life against the "moral degradation caused by Western influence", but in reality the Russian society of today does not seem to deviate much from the habits of the times of Soviet atheism in this,  where even 2-3% of the population tried to attend churches despite their scarcity and the risks that this entailed.

Moreover, it is not easy to calculate the number of "Orthodox parishioners", as there are no official registers even for the sacraments, and the same Russian law on freedom of religion prohibits believers from signing any document certifying their belonging to a religious confession.  The statistics in this sense are somewhat generic and often generous, and the most credible data are those of the Ministry of the Interior, which controls all types of population groupings.--Asia News

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