Russian Parents Worried Orthodox Priests Are 'Zombifying' Their Kids At Summer Camp

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, Russia -- Earlier this month, a local eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church announced its "Bells Over Kamchatka" project.

Priests, it pledged in a small notice on its website, would "carry out meetings and conversations" at all the children's summer camps in the region before the beginning of the school year.

The church's article described one priest's visit to the Voskhod (Sunrise) camp, during which he lectured on the history of bells in the church and gave the children the chance to ring a miniature carillon. The visit was conducted under a joint program between the eparchy and the Kamchatka Krai Ministry of Youth and Education.

A week later, local resident Aleksei Nikolayev appealed to the regional prosecutor's office over what he saw as proselytizing to his 10-year-old daughter at the same camp this summer.

"I didn't care about this until it affected me personally," he said. "At summer camp, some priests spoke with my child and this made me mad. I read about it first on [local news website] Kam24 and then, naturally, spoke to the child."

Nikolayev asked prosecutors to file criminal charges against the clergymen and government officials who organized the events.

Kam24 reported on August 20 that children at another camp, Mettalist, had been baptized with the consent of officials at the camp.

"I saw several publications on the Kam24 website about how priests carried out a mass baptism of children at the camp," Nikolayev told RFE/RL. "There were reports that members of the National Guard were kissing some [religious] relics. Prosecutors, too. I don't know exactly what relics, but some sort of bones were brought around to all the offices."

A spokesperson at the eparchy acknowledged in the Kam24 report that there had been baptisms.

"Fourteen children from children's correctional home No. 3 who were vacationing at the Metallist children's camp were baptized," the spokesperson said. The church also reported that local nuns were made godmothers to the newly baptized children.

"We have bureaucrats who are growing fat at the expense of the people," Nikolayev said. "And now there is the church as well, which is also getting fat at our expense. I have very negative views of religion, of the church. And not just the Orthodox Church but all of them."

The director of the Voskhod camp, Olga Petukhova, told RFE/RL that she saw no problem with the church's presentation to the children at her camp.

"I was personally present during the entire lecture," she said. "Father Boris Murzin came and told the children about bells in Russia and gave the children the chance to ring a church bell. I don't understand why some parents are reacting in this way. After all, this is our history, part of our life. During the whole lecture, the word 'Orthodox' was not pronounced. The whole thing was about the historical side of the issue."

Although the Kamchatka eparchy declined to comment for RFE/RL's story, the article on the church's website describes the Voskhod visit as "a missionary trip."

Critics in Russia have expressed concern about the Russian Orthodox Church's close relations with the government under President Vladimir Putin and its perceived influence in cultural and social affairs.

Inna Zagrebina, a lawyer who specializes in church-state relations and who is participating in Nikolayev's appeal, told RFE/RL that the law forbids children under the age of 14 from being "drawn into the activity of religious organizations." Other laws protect children under the age of 18, she added, saying that the authorities are obliged to respond to complaints from parents of such children.

"Missionary activity should not be taking place in children's camps," she said. "It is another matter if in this particular case we aren't talking about missionary work but about exposing the children to historical and cultural values."

She said that prosecutors would likely be looking into the legal status of the event and whether there was "an agreement on cooperation between the camp and the eparchy."

"They will also have to check whether the parents agreed to this program or not," Zagrebina said.

Nikolayev recalled that last year, parents at his daughter's school were asked to choose an elective course for religious and moral education.

"They gave us the option of six or seven confessions," he said, "plus there was the choice of 'foundations of secular ethics.' That is the one that we chose, since I protect my daughter from everything religious. [In my daughter's class], 21 of the 28 children are studying secular ethics. Several are studying Islam, but not one is taking Orthodoxy."

Nikolayev said a few years ago parents were upset to learn that priests were teaching in public schools.

"People got angry and wrote to the prosecutor and so on," he said. "The priests stopped going to the schools. Now they are going to the camps. They don't give up. They are zombifying underage children and imposing their religion."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Siberia Desk correspondent Aleksandr Molchanov