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Navalny commemorated by Christians worldwide after death in prison camp

21 February 2024

But police arrest 400, and remove candles and flowers in dissident’s country


Candlelit vigil in Rome on Monday to mark the death of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Candlelit vigil in Rome on Monday to mark the death of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

CHRISTIANS around the world have marked the death in a remote prison camp of the Russian  opposi­tion leader Alexei Navalny. Armed po­­­lice dispersed citizens trying to do so publicly in Russia last Friday.

Speaking in Rome, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said that news of the death of Mr Navalny, at the age of 47, had caused “astonishment and sadness”. The Cardinal had hoped that the dissident’s plight could be “resolved differently”.

Members of Finland’s Orthodox Church attended a memorial service for Mr Navalny in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Helsinki, led by Archbishop Leo (Makkonen). Dr Markus Dröge, the former Evangelical Bishop of Berlin, where Mr Navalny was treated for Novichok nerve-agent poisoning in August 2020, called for a street or square to be named after him in recognition of his “indomitable and fearless commitment to freedom and democracy”.

In a social-media post, the Bishop of Limburg, Dr Georg Bätzing, who chairs the Roman Catholic German Bishops’ Conference, said that Mr Navalny’s “shocking death” showed that “human lives don’t seem to count” for President Putin, whose “inhumane system” allowed “human rights to be trampled underfoot in a supposedly constitutional state”.

Mr Navalny’s death at the strict-regime IK-3 Arctic penal colony in the Russian Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, where he was serving a 19-year sentence, was reported on 16 February by the TASS news agency. It said that the Federal Penitentiary Service had attributed it to “sudden-death syndrome”.

Speaking on Tuesday, the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov dismissed media claims that the dissident had again been poisoned with Novichok, and criticised “arrogant” and “unacceptable” condemnations by Western leaders.

It was reported that at least 400 Russians had been arrested by the middle of the week while commemorating Mr Navalny around the country; police removed flowers and candles placed in his memory.

In a statement this week, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, said that the EU was “outraged” by Navalny’s death, and would “impose further costs” for Russian actions.

The British Government summoned Russian Embassy officials to protest at Navalny’s death. In the United States, where new “major sanctions” were announced by the White House on Tuesday, President Biden said that the dissident had been “so many things that Putin was not: brave, principled . . . and dedicated to building a Russia where a rule of law existed and was applied everywhere”.

Mr Navalny’s death was not mentioned by the Moscow Patriarchate. Patriarch Kirill praised the Russian Orthodox Church for upholding “freedom of speech and freedom of conscience” in a speech to Moscow clergy on Tuesday. He spoke of its “uncompromising defence of Christ’s truth” and support for those “protecting spiritual and moral values”.

A minority church source in Russia told the Church Times that President Putin’s government counted on Mr Navalny’s death “passing unnoticed” as “an ordinary incident soon to be forgotten”. Ordinary church members feared for their safety if they spoke out.

She said, however, that Christians of various denominations had discreetly commemorated the dissident in prayers and messages on social media, and some Orthodox clergy had also held “private liturgies” for Mr Navalny, despite “every possible preventive effort” by their bishops.

Media reports said that Navalny’s mother was told on Tuesday that she must wait 14 days to receive the dissident’s body, pending a “chemical examination”, which fuelled suspicions of poisoning.

The opposition leader’s wife of 24 years, Yulia Navalnaya, accused President Putin in a video on Monday of killing Navalny “without ever looking him in the eye or even mentioning his name”, and vowed to continue his struggle.

In a statement this week, Amnesty International urged the Russian government to end its “callous campaign” against citizens who wished to commemorate Mr Navalny. It demanded “a prompt, independent, and impartial investigation” of the circumstances of death, “fully transparent and involving his family members”.

It went on to say that a bishop from Russia’s independent Orthodox Apostolic Church, Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko, had suffered a heart attack. While attempting to celebrate an outdoor requiem in St Petersburg for Mr Navalny, he had been arrested, as part of a “nationwide campaign to silence dissent and instil fear”.

Mr Navalny ran for President in 2018, and was imprisoned in January 2021 for violating parole after receiving life-saving treatment for Novichok poisoning in Germany. His three-and-a-half year sentence was later extended and made harsher.

At his 2021 trial, Mr Navalny described himself as a Christian convert from “militant atheism” at his 2021 trial. The Bible, he said, offered him guidance and gave him “fewer dilemmas in life”.

In the court speech, reported by the now-disbanded Moscow Helsinki Group, he said that he also had “no regrets” about returning to Russia to face certain arrest.

His death coincides with apparent Russian battlefield advances in Ukraine, as well as preparations for elections on 15-17 March, in which President Putin, in power since 2000, is assured of a fifth term after the forced elimination or marginalisation of possible challengers.

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