CONCERNS have been raised by Anglicans in Russia about the deteriorating relations with Britain after the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury (News, 16 March).
The Government ordered 23 Russian diplomats — who, it said, were spies masquerading as diplomats — to leave the UK, after it was concluded that Russia, despite its denials, was behind the nerve-agent attack.
Last week, the Kremlin retaliated by expelling 23 British diplomats. It also closed down the British Council, which acts as a cultural exchange, and ordered the closure of the UK’s St Petersburg consulate.
The Anglican Chaplain in Moscow, Canon Malcolm Rogers, said that some of the diplomats expelled were members of his congregation at St Andrew’s. “We will be losing some families, and it is desperately, desperately sad, because they are good friends,” he told the BBC on Sunday.
“As expatriates who live in Moscow, we pray every Sunday for Her Majesty the Queen, and for President Putin. We are citizens of Britain, but we are also subject to the authorities here, and it’s in our vested interest that there are really good relationships between the two countries; that there is a greater understanding and openness and willingness to compromise.”
He said that the biggest problem between the two nations was that there was “so much fear”. Russians feared a “cultural invasion from the West”, and Westerners were afraid of the newly provocative and antagonistic “Russian bear”.
“Our longing as a Christian Church is to see that reconciliation, but it will only come as peoples get to know each other and talk together. Labelling and demonising people is only going to get us nowhere.”
While Canon Rogers conceded that the expulsion of the alleged Russian spies in Britain was “necessary”, he lamented the fact that the retaliatory expulsions in Moscow would cut off cultural and diplomatic ties between the two countries, and remove those who could help to restore relationships.
“We’ve just lost a number of people from our congregation; it’s going to be hard. But our job for the next six months is to support our people here, and the remaining staff at the embassy, for whom it will be very hard, and to build up the life of the community.”
In a message on the diocese in Europe’s website, Canon Rogers asked Anglicans across the continent to pray that the conflict remained at a political level, and did not seep into the relationships between ordinary British people and Russians.
“Pray, too, that St Andrew’s can continue to be faithful to the work of proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of serving the expatriate community, and being a place for reconciliation between East and West, as we seek to live here as God’s people,” he wrote.
On Sunday, President Putin secured another election victory and a further six-year term as president. The vote was condemned by many as rigged, however, and the main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was barred from running.
Some observers of Russia have noted that the Putin regime has aligned itself more closely to the Russian Orthodox Church.
A report by the religious-freedom advocacy group Forum 18 last year, referred to dozens of incidents of state harassment and persecution directed at Baptists and other smaller Christian organisations, which, it said, had increased since Mr Putin retook the presidency in 2012 (News, 20 January 2017).
Read our columnist Paul Vallely on how the UK should respond to Russia’s aggression