Head of Russian Orthodox Church to Make First-ever Visit to Israel

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church will fly from Moscow to Israel next week for a weeklong visit to the Jewish state, the first by a Russian Orthodox patriarch since Israel’s creation in 1948.

It will also be the first pilgrimage abroad for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II since he was named head of the church last fall.

The trip is “further indication of improved Soviet-Israel relations,” according to Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an ecumenical organization of American business and religious leaders whose goal is to promote religious freedom around the world.

Schneier, who is also senior rabbi at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, met with Aleksy II recently during a 12-day visit to Moscow and Kiev. They discussed new opportunities for religious expression in the Soviet Union made possible by a law on freedom of conscience enacted in November.

“The legislation not only protects freedom of worship but also gives churches and synagogues the right to carry out religious education, charity and social welfare projects,” Schneier said.

“These are particularly important during the current period of food shortages and economic hardship.”

The patriarch, leader of approximately 50 million Russian Orthodox Christians in the Russian, Estonian and Ukrainian republics, will fly to Israel aboard a chartered Aeroflot plane, accompanied by 30 pilgrims.

‘SPIRIT OF TOLERANCE’ MUST PREVAIL

He will meet in Israel with Christian, Jewish and Moslem religious leaders, Schneier said. He also will meet with high-level Israeli political leaders, possibly including President Chaim Herzog and Religious Affairs Minister Avner Shaki.

While meeting with Schneier in the Soviet Union, the patriarch spoke of “the urgency of measures to end ethnic strife” and condemned chauvinism and anti-Semitism, which seek to divide the community, according to Schneier.

The understanding that the patriarch has of Judaism and the Jewish people is extremely important, Schneier said, because the Russian Orthodox Church can play “a very significant role in restraining some of the extreme nationalist forces which are spewing anti-Semitism.”

“I was deeply gratified to hear (Aleksy II) tell me that the ‘ecumenical spirit of tolerance’ must prevail,” he said.

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